Posted on December 16, 2020 at 2:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett
University Museums is dedicated to continuing the legacy of Christian Petersen, artist-in-residence at Iowa State from 1934 to 1955. His sculptures have become iconic images of the campus, adding greatly to the nationally recognized public art collection and the integration of art, landscape, and education that makes this campus unique. Part of continuing Petersen’s legacy is understanding his artistic motivations, inspirations, and career before he came to the Midwest. University Museums Director, Lynette Pohlman, has spent years working with other art historians to develop a timeline and understanding of Petersen’s career and how as a sculptor he fits within the canon of 20th century American art. Through research into his early career on the East Coast, connections to the circle of important sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens were apparent. The inclusion of a small Saint-Gaudens plaster in the Petersen collection (Gift of Helen Nerney Shaw to Special Collections, Iowa State University Library. Transferred to University Museums) seems to further solidify their knowledge of each other, if not their work together.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is considered one of the greatest American sculptors. Because of his many large-scale public commissions over his career spanning the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1907, his sculptures are some of the most easily identifiable in American art. As a young artist, Christian Petersen most likely either worked with Saint-Gaudens or within his important circle of influence (which included James Earle Fraser, who assisted Saint-Gaudens and became a well-known sculptor himself). The influence of Saint-Gaudens and his circle are readily apparent in the earliest known bronze monumental sculpture by Petersen and which is now installed on central campus, his Panthers designed in the 1920s.
University Museums discovered a small plaster by Saint-Gaudens within the Petersen collection then housed at Special Collections in the Library and is now part of the University Museums’ permanent collection after being transferred in 2018. This plaster seems to tangibly connect the two sculptors or at least their knowledge of each other. A larger, bronze example by Saint-Gaudens is an important addition to the understanding of Petersen’s early life and influences before he came to the Midwest, a story that the Museums continues to research. The acquisition of the bas-relief depicting Richard Watson Gilder, Helena de Kay Gilder, and Rodman de Kay Gilder from 1879 expresses direct artistic influence Saint-Gaudens had on Christian Petersen’s bronze plaques dating from 1915 through the 1940s, and thus furthers the development of Petersen’s context within American art history.
This Saint-Gaudens’ bronze plaque of the Gilder family, the only Saint-Gaudens in an Iowa museum collection, greatly enhances the permanent collection by adding a significant bronze sculpture by one of the most prominent American sculptors, while also aiding to further elucidate our understanding and knowledge of Christian Petersen, Iowa State’s beloved sculptor, teacher, and artist-in-residence.
This work of art will be on exhibition in the spring 2021 Recent Acquisitions exhibition at the Brunnier Art Museum.
IMAGE: Richard Watson Gilder, Helena de Kay Gilder, and Rodman de Kay Gilder, 1879 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848-1907). Bronze. Purchased by University Museums with funds from the Joyce Tomlinson Brewer Fund for Art Acquisition. In the permanent collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2020.22