John Conrad Hansen’s poorly-known restorations of vertebrate fossils

Norwegian-born artist and engraver John Conrad Hansen (1869-1952) drew and painted a series of magnificent restorations of fossil vertebrates during his fourteen year career at Chicago’s Field Museum. Many of his line drawings were eventually published in the scientific literature, especially in papers authored by paleontologists Elmer S. Riggs, Bryan Patterson and Paul McGrew. Others, including an unknown number of beautiful oil paintings, were intended to add a dash of form and color to the fossil vertebrate displays in the museum’s historic Hall 38, the now defunct hall of vertebrate paleontology. Unfortunately, Hansen’s paintings were uninstalled in 1994 when the museum renovated its paleontology exhibits, and, to the best of my knowledge, none are currently on display there.

I remember seeing some of these paintings in the museum when I visited in my youth. I vividly recall a display that explained how fossils are formed, and how they are found and collected by paleontologists. This display featured a memorable series of six Hansen paintings illustrating how an animal carcass enters the fossil record. One of those paintings is featured below.

John Conrad Hansen paints the background for a small, portable diorama. Field Museum photo GN78638
John Conrad Hansen paints the background for a small, portable diorama. Field Museum photo GN78638.

Hansen’s work was much admired by the Field Museum’s paleontology staff. Riggs noted that “Mr. Hansen … has a fine discriminating sense of form in his drawings.” Patterson was even more effusive: “I may say without exaggeration that [Hansen] has no superior and few peers among either contemporary or former illustrators of fossil vertebrate remains.”

A very small sample of Hansen’s work is reproduced here, courtesy of the Field Museum.

This was part of a series of paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum 84471c.
This was part of a series of paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum 84471c.
A dramatic scene from the La Brea tar pits. Field Museum 84484c.
A dramatic scene from the La Brea tar pits. Field Museum 84484c.
Another installment from a series of six paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum GEO84474c.
Another installment from a series of six paintings illustrating how fossils form. Field Museum GEO84474c.
A shovel-tusked mastodon. Field Museum GEO84491c.
A shovel-tusked mastodon. Field Museum GEO84491c.
Hansen rendered many very small paintings, also. Field Museum GEO80157.
Hansen rendered many very small paintings, also. Field Museum GEO80157.
A scientific illustration showing the skull of the type specimen of Andrewsornis abbotti. Field Museum GEO80035.
A scientific illustration showing the skull of the type specimen of Andrewsornis abbotti. Field Museum GEO80035.
A small ground sloth called Hapalops. Click here to see the specimen this painting was made from. Field Museum GEO84480c.
A small ground sloth called Hapalops. Click here to see the specimen this painting was made from. Field Museum GEO84480c.
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21 thoughts on “John Conrad Hansen’s poorly-known restorations of vertebrate fossils”

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lizette. I will try to post more of these paintings today. Keep in mind that a typical natural history museum has millions of objects in its collections that are not on display!

      1. I love the marriage of creative art and natural history. It opens one’s mind a bit to what the reality of these creatures could have been.

    1. Nobody knows the exact number, but 50-75 is a reasonably good guess. The problem is that while many of these works of art have been cataloged and are kept in the collections, others have been squirreled away in offices, either hanging on the wall or – sadly – stuck in a drawer. I have a few more images here that I will try to post later today. Thanks, LB.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Lonzo. Hansen was an engraver and lithographer before he joined the Field Museum, and that’s all I know. I have seen some landscape paintings that he did in his private life, but I assume he did these after he arrived at the museum. Unfortunately, Hansen’s early life is a blank canvas!

  1. What an amazing imagination he must have had to look at a few bones and paint a living creature and its landscape! I am grateful to your blog for sharing things that the public would otherwise be unable to see.

    1. Thanks, CD. Yes, Hansen must have had a strong imagination to do this kind of work. On the other hand, he – as well as most other paleoartists – had to work in concert with paleontologists, which must have kept his creativity somewhat in check.

    1. Hansen joined the Field Museum in his 69th year and started a second career as a paleoartist. Before that, he was an engraver and lithographer. I have been having a hard time finding any information about his first career. Good to see you back again, Dinonut.

    1. No, not that I’m aware of. The Field Museum does a relatively poor job of monetizing some of its more marketable assets, in my opinion.

  2. I am his great grand niece. He painted a number of beautiful landscape and still life paintings before he worked at the Field Museum. Many of these are still in our family, but I have seen several sold at auction. Those are in the hands of private collectors. The artist emigrated from Norway as a child, with his four siblings and widowed mother. They stayed briefly with cousins on a farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, before settling in Minneapolis. Hansen’s brother, Carl G.O. Hansen, became a well-known Norwegian-American journalist and author who was knighted by the King of Norway.

  3. I know I am late to the party here Paul, but wanted to say thanks for posting. I came across some black and white prints of his “how to become a fossil” (with the old “Chicago Natural History Museum” stamp on the back) today and started to look for the actual colored versions and they are as great as I imagined they were.

  4. Thanks for posting this information about John Conrad Hansen. As kids we knew him when he was a boarder in the home of our paternal grandfather, Rev. John J. Wang, in the Logan Square area of Chicago and whenever we visited our grandparents we would stop in and visit with Mr. Hansen and he would show us what he was doing for the museum. I discovered this article after my brother mentioned to me that Mr. Hansen was mentioned in a magazine he just received from Vesterheim. Our family has one of Mr. Hansen’s paintings, which I think is of a log cabin chapel somewhere in the Midwest, maybe Indiana. The article in the Vesterheim publication mentions something of Mr. Hansen’s earlier life before his work at the museum. Whenever we would visit him in his room he would light a log cabiin incense burner, so the recollection that we always had was the smell of oil paints and incense…in later years we sent letters to the museum asking if it was possible to get copies of the art work that he had done during the years that we would visit him at our grandparents, but sad to day we never got a response.

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