The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Petersen, Christian
(February 25, 1885–April 4, 1961)

–sculptor—is best known for his sculptures for the campus of Iowa State University (ISU). From monumental panels such as the Veterinary Medicine Mural to smaller portraits such as George Washington Carver, Petersen's work expresses the life, the objectives, and the notable personalities associated with ISU. His sculptures were figurative and were carried out in styles that ranged from Beaux-Arts in his early career to a conservative version of modernism in his work of the mid 1930s.

    Petersen was born at Dybbol in the Schleswig-Holstein region of Denmark in 1885. His interest in sculpture beganduring his boyhood in Denmark when, he remembered, he had made toy boats in his grandfather's carpenter workshop. In 1894 the family emigrated from Denmark and lived for a time near Paxton, Illinois, but settled in New Jersey in order to be closer to the sea.

    Petersen would have preferred to study sculpture or architecture, but financial circumstances forced him into a commercial career of die-cutting and similar kinds of engraving. After study at the Newark (New Jersey) Technical School and the Fawcett School of Design, he joined a jewelry and metal design firm, the Robbins Company, in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where he lived with his wife, Emma, and three children. His reputation for skilled engraving soon made it possible for him to secure other commissions. During the early years of his career, he advanced his education in the fine arts at every opportunity, taking classes at the Art Students League in New York in 1910 and the Rhode Island School of Design in 1911-1912, and serving an apprenticeship with the Boston sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson around 1920.

    Despite his considerable financial success in his commercial work, Petersen continually sought opportunities to create sculpture. His earliest commissions were for portrait busts and commemorative medals, but by the mid 1920s, he had expanded his practice to full-scale public monuments, such as the Spanish-American War Memorial for the city of Newport, Rhode Island (1923) and the Battery D Memorial (1924) for the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. About the same time, he began to receive commissions in Iowa, notably from Edgar R. Harlan, curator of the state's Historical, Memorial, and Art Department, for sculptures such as commemorative plaques of Iowa governors and a portrait of the Meskwaki leader Pushetonequa. In 1928 Petersen decided to abandon commercial work entirely and devote himself to his fine arts career. He left the East Coast, ended his marriage, and moved to Chicago, hoping to establish a sculpture studio. The arrival of the Great Depression, however, dimmed Petersen's prospects.

    He took temporary employment as a die-cutter in Chicago (where he met and married his second wife, Charlotte Garvey Petersen, who would become his assistant and archivist), but he remained steadfastly determined to live as an artist. He continued to receive occasional commissions from Harlan and from private Des Moines patrons as well for sculpted portraits. His living was precarious, however. By the time the first New Deal program for art, the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), was established in December 1933, Petersen qualified for assistance. In January 1934 Grant Wood, director of the Iowa project, invited Petersen to become part of his PWAP studio at the State University of Iowa. Petersen remained there until the project officially ended in April 1934 and through that summer. The Iowa PWAP's two major accomplishments were the murals Grant Wood directed for the library of Iowa State College and the sculpted mural by Petersen, The History of Dairying. The success of Petersen's sculpture enabled Iowa State President Raymond M. Hughes to add Petersen to the college's staff in October 1934 as the first sculptor-in-residence in any American college. He soon began to teach sculpture classes in addition to creating works of art for the campus.

    From then until his retirement in 1955, Petersen created a range of sculptures for the campus. His masterpiece is generally considered to be the Veterinary Medicine Mural (1935-1938). A separate statue, The Gentle Doctor, installed in front of the panel, has become a symbol not only of the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine, where it and the panel are installed, but also of the veterinarian profession. Petersen's campus monuments and installations include Three Athletes at State Gym (1935), Fountain of the Four Seasons in front of the Memorial Union (1941), Marriage Ring in front of McKay Hall (1942), Library Boy and Girl in the ISU library (1944), and Conversations near the Oak-Elm residence halls (1947-1952). Petersen also produced numerous studio sculptures. His Cornhusker (1941) and 4-H Calf (1941) are among the most important examples of regionalist sculpture, and his Price of Victory (Fallen Soldier) (1944) expresses the sacrifices of World War II.

    After World War II, much of Petersen's sculpture expresses a strong antiwar theme. Despite his obsession with the subject, Petersen was never able to realize his designs for a major antiwar sculpture or installation. He did, however, have significant success with his religious sculpture, another of his postwar concentrations. Numerous congregations in Iowa awarded Petersen commissions, often for large-scale work, such as the 21-foot-high Saint Francis Xavier (1950) for the parish church and basilica at Dyersville and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1954) at nearly 11 feet high, which was created for Mount St. Bernard Seminary in Dubuque but is now at St. Bernard Parish, Breda, Iowa. Among his most interesting religious works is Madonna of the Schools (1946) for St. Cecilia Church in Ames. Petersen's final sculpture, signed just days before his death, was Dedication to the Future, a 10-foot-high figure of a man holding aloft his infant son, commissioned by J. W. Fisher for the Marshalltown Community Center.
Sources The largest collection of Petersen's work is held by the Brunnier Art Museum of Iowa State University, Ames, which has published and maintains a catalogue raisonné of the artist's work and which presented a retrospective exhibition of Petersen's career in 2000. As part of its University Museums, Iowa State University has established the Christian Petersen Art Museum, dedicated to Petersen's legacy. For more on Petersen, see Patricia Lounsbury Bliss, Christian Petersen Remembered (1986); and Lea Rosson DeLong, Christian Petersen, Sculptor (2000), which includes a catalogue raisonné listing all of Petersen's works. For confirmation and details of the Petersen family emigration, see August L. Bang, "Sculptor, Christian Petersen," typescript in Christian Petersen Papers, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames. For more on Petersen's experience on the PWAP, the influence of Grant Wood on his work, and a history of the Iowa State University murals, see Lea Rosson DeLong, When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals (2006).
Contributor: Lea Rosson Delong