Painter and etcher Armin Hansen (1886-1957) was born in San Francisco but was primarily known for his rough-and-tumble paintings and powerful etchings of Monterey Bay and its fishermen. Vigorous, virile and visceral are words that come to mind in describing his scenes of fisherfolk and the seas where they plied their trade.
At 6-foot-4 and 253 pounds, he could have passed for one of the rough-hewn fishermen in signature paintings like “Monterey Fishermen” and “Nino.” Hansen knew many of the fishermen he painted personally, including Nino, who is depicted struggling against the sea and winning. One of his best known paintings, “Nino” is notable for its strong, almost Cubist composition, the richness of its red tones and its active surface made up of broad, fast brushstrokes.
Though Hansen is often counted as an Impressionist, his paintings depart from the calm beauty that characterized the style. Rather, in paintings like “Salmon Trawlers,” he captures the raw power of the Pacific, even making us feel the weight of the water and its unpredictable movements.
The largest show of his works ever assembled, “Armin Hansen: The Artful Voyage,” an exhibition of nearly 100 works at the Crocker Art Museum, offers an extensive and in-depth view of this important California artist’s work.
Hansen, the son of a successful painter of cowboy pictures, got his earliest art lessons at his father’s knee. At the age of 15, he enrolled at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art where he studied for five years with Arthur Mathews and others. After the earthquake in 1906, he traveled to Europe, arriving in Hamburg, Germany, in September. While there, he toured the area where his father’s family had lived and then enrolled at an art academy in Stuttgart.
Two years later he settled in Belgium, where his love affair with the sea began. From 1908 to 1912, he worked as a deckhand on a Norwegian steam trawler traveling between Germany and England. He developed an abiding love for the fisherman’s life and could easily have made the sea his career. But he continued to study art, visiting galleries in Amsterdam, Munich, London and Paris.
In 1909, he learned the technique of etching in Belgium and made his first etchings of the Yser River and Belgian wharves. At the height of his career in the 1920s he was better known on the East Coast as an etcher than a painter. But his paintings were highly prized as well and in the ’20s he could scarcely keep up with the demand.
After he returned from Europe in 1912, he began teaching art classes in San Francisco and the next year showed paintings he had done in Europe, including scenes of fishermen and fishing boats. That year he also made his first trip to the Monterey Peninsula aboard a lumber steamer and in the summer began dividing his time between San Francisco and Monterey, where he settled permanently in 1918.
Having established a strong reputation for his art, he taught at various institutions in the Bay Area and met his future wife while teaching a summer art class in Monterey. The two married in 1922 and had a son, nicknamed Motje,which means “little pal.” There is a charming portrait of the boy as well as a strong painting of his wife, Frances, in the exhibition.
By the middle of the decade, Hansen began to experiment with larger formats and scenes done in, for him, a radical style in which some elements of the composition were outlined and color broke free. The exhibition includes several of these including the large canvas “Thanks Unto Thee, Oh Lord” with its allegorical bent and pile of blood-red fish in the foreground. These paintings were not as well received as darker works of dramatic shipwrecks and character studies of fishermen whose physiognomies seem sculpted by the sea.
Throughout the ’20s, he showed often on both coasts, won numerous awards, joined the exclusive Salmagundi Club in New York and became a member of the National Academy of Design. But the stock market crash in 1929 had a devastating effect on his career. Having lost his savings in the crash, he was dismayed to find that the market for his art also became depressed.
During the lean times of the Depression, he worked with diverse subjects, hoping to expand his market. He turned to cowboy painting, producing dashing, action-packed canvases such as “Cowboy Sport.” He also painted a number of beautiful still lifes, including “After Lunch,” an elegant tabletop with the remains of a delicious meal.
The show includes examples of these, as well as numerous etchings from all periods that astonish with their intricate markings and dynamic compositions. Many are of shipwrecks, although included are documentaries of the fishing industry in Monterey. As Scott Shields, the exhibition’s curator and author of the detailed yet lively catalog pointed out, sardine fishing was a major industry in Monterey.
One of the things that makes Hansen such an important painter is that he was alone among Monterey’s early painters in documenting this vital aspect of the area’s history. Like Winslow Homer in an earlier time and on a different coast, he gave us unforgettable images of the seafaring life.
Armin Hansen: The Artful Voyage
- Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
- When: Through Oct. 11. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
- Cost: $4-$10, free for children 6 and under; every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
- Information: 916-808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org.