Tag Archives: John Conrad Hansen

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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