Armin Hansen's most celebrated works depict seamen laboring on boats in the oceans off Northern Europe and California, and the bustle of activity on coastal docks. In paintings like Reef Sea Fishermen, Monterey, he captures the raw, unpredictable oceans and the tough lives of the men working on them in saturated color, with vigorous brushwork and with realism and accuracy gained from actual experience. "From the piers and docks and wharves, and from the sand beaches and rocky coves Hansen viewed men and their struggle with the sea from countless angles, continuously refining his material over the years . . ." (R.L. Westphal et al, Plein Air Painters of California: The North, Irvine, California, 1986, p. 89)
Hansen received his earliest art instruction from his father, painter Herman Wendelborg Hansen, before enrolling at the Mark Hopkins Institute in San Francisco under Arthur Mathews. When the school was closed after the earthquake and fire of 1906, he went to Germany to attend the Royal Akademie in Stuttgart and studied under the German Impressionist painter Carlos Grethe. Influence from his mentor can be seen in Hansen's predilection for a darker palette, a German Impressionist style and a singular focus on the ocean as subject.
After studying at the academy for two years and then traveling through Germany, Holland and France, Hansen settled in Nieuport, Belgium. There his artistic interest in the sea became a reality when he signed on as a deck hand on a Norwegian steam trawler. He spent the next four years working as a sailor on many boats in the North Sea and made a number sketches and finished oils from his experiences there. His ability to capture such accuracy in his work is gleaned from these first-hand experiences.
In 1912, Hansen returned to San Francisco and four years later he moved to Monterey where he continued to explore imagery depicting the ocean and the commerce associated with it, particularly the area's active Sardine Industry. ". . . Armin Hansen made a specialty of painting the teeming wharves. [He] focused primarily on Monterey's colorfully clad Sicilian and Portuguese Fishermen. Unlike the works of most of his plein-air contemporaries, Hansen's paintings usually present a clear narrative, with his protagonists vigorously working the docks or braving the elements at sea." (S. Landauer, California Impressionists, "Impressionism's Indian Summer: The Culture and Consumption of California 'Plein-Air' Painting", Irvine, California, 1996, p. 41)
He once declared, "Everything that I have done has always been to go back to the water and the men who gave it romance." (as quoted in California Impressionists, p. 41)
A deck packed with active seamen immediately confronts the viewer in Reef Sea Fishermen, Monterey. Hansen paints the men hunkered down in their daily duties working on a boat deck crowded with riggings and nets. The choppy sea is visible in the background on both sides of the boat serving as a reminder of the precarious and isolated life out on a vast and wild sea. "It is his concern with human dignity and courage in the midst of the powers of nature and ultimately, the beauty of both, that gives Hansen's work its greatness. Its strengths remain as timeless as the dramas he depicted." (A.R. White and C. Berney, Armin Hansen: The Jane and Justin Dart Collection, Monterey, California, 1993, p. 19)