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About Christian Petersen

Sculpture of a boy and a girl in display at ISU Parks Library building

Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)


When one speaks of the legacy of Christian Petersen, usually his public art created for Iowa State is first to come to mind. During his twenty-one year tenure, Petersen completed twelve major campus works of art and changed the way Iowa State would look forever. .

Throughout his time at Iowa State, Petersen taught courses through the Home Economics curriculum. Even in the beginning when the classes were only open to women, enrollment was at maximum capacity. He was known to allow male students to attend these classes “unofficially,” most likely because he simply could not turn away a potential student. By the spring of 1939, enrollment in Petersen’s courses was opened to male students, and the classes continued to overflow. 

The skeptic might speculate that his courses were easy A’s or a great way to meet coeds—courses mixing male and female students were rare. But testimonials from his students reveal that the main reason he was so popular with his pupils was simply because he cared. Despite their struggles with clay and plaster, Petersen empowered his students to succeed. Few had any background in art, yet Petersen found ways to communicate and transfer his sincere passion to his students. Former students such as Norma "Duffy" Lyons, the "Butter Cow Lady", and Elizabeth Anderson, founder of the Elizabeth and Byron Anderson Sculpture Garden on central ISU campus, continue the artistic and aesthetic legacy instilled in them by Petersen.

Therefore, it seems fitting that Petersen’s Iowa State sculptures have become the core around which has grown the Art on Campus Collection. Administered by the University Museums, the Art on Campus Collection, now numbering over 700 major works of art, specifically references the disciplines taught on campus. This Collection is a conduit for learning and teaching, serving as a visual language for animal science, veterinary medicine, molecular biology and many other subjects. The Christian Petersen Art Museum in Morrill Hall, named in honor of Petersen's legacy, routinely exhibits the studio work of Petersen and acts as a hub for the Art on Campus Collection that he founded.

Biographical Information on Christian Petersen

Fountain of the Four Seasons sculptureChristian Petersen was born on February 25, 1885, in Denmark, and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was nine years old. The Petersen family settled on a farm in New Jersey where Christian Petersen completed his primary and secondary education. He then enrolled in the Newark Technical School where he learned the craft of die-cutting, the process of sculpting designs into metal models for objects such as silverware or medals. 

Around 1920, Petersen apprenticed with Boston sculptor, Henry Hudson Kitson (1865-1947), whose best known sculpture is probably The Minuteman of Lexington. From Kitson, Petersen acquired a firm foundation in the beaux-arts style that became popular in the United States during the late nineteenth century. Usually based on narrative subjects with symbolism, the beaux-arts style was commonly used in sculptures honoring war heroes and personifying national virtues. 

In the wake of World War I, Petersen received and completed numerous commissions for memorials and monuments, as well as portrait busts and plaques, but the work was sporadic so Petersen continued to work commercially as a die cutter. However, in 1928, Petersen made a dramatic change in his life when he left the east coast for Chicago, leaving behind a family and a successful career to pursue sculpting as his full time work.

According to Petersen, the “East has so much conscious culture that sometimes if suffers from indigestion.” At the time, Petersen felt the Midwest would eventually become a cultural center. Therefore, Petersen was most likely the first of many artists to act on that expectation, participating in a new art movement that would become known as Regionalism. Petersen’s plans for beginning a new career in Chicago were interrupted by the fall of the Stock Market in 1929, marking the start of the Great Depression. He returned to die-cutting for the jewelry company Dodge and Asher where he met Charlotte Garvey. The two were married in 1931, and in 1932, Petersen once again exchanged job security and stability for full-time sculpting.

During this time of the Great Depression, millions of skilled Americans were unemployed and hungry in the 1930’s, including many artists. Special programs were created to help these artists as part of the New Deal instituted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) was the first of such programs intended to put artists to work on strictly supervised projects for the American public. Petersen was invited by Grant Wood, head of Iowa’s PWAP, to participate in this federally funded program. The two major projects of the Iowa PWAP were completed for Iowa State College (now University) in Ames: murals for the library and a fountain for the Dairy Industry Building. While all the other artists in the program worked on the mural project, Petersen carried out the Dairy Industry assignment independently.

Apparently Petersen was the only professional sculptor in Iowa’s PWAP, as well as the only artist to transform his assignment into a permanent job. What was to have been a semester as a “temporary” position at Iowa State became this artist’s full-time residency for the next twenty-one years. Petersen was added to the college payroll in October, 1935 by then College President Raymond Hughes, and was expected to teach a class in sculpture and continue working on projects for campus.

As a teacher, Petersen was a popular choice among students. His courses were offered as part of the Home Economics curriculum, and therefore, were only open to women. However, male students frequently attended his classes. By the spring semester of 1939, they were allowed to officially enroll in Petersen’s sculpture courses which were typically filled to capacity. 

The body of work produced during his time at Iowa State constitutes Petersen’s best known sculptures. The sculptures are all representational and reflect the missions and themes of the various departments at the time. Petersen’s works of art are among the best of the Regionalist art produced in the 1930s and 40s, representing the history and culture of the Midwest. Petersen retired from Iowa State in 1955, and although he did not witness its installation, he chose the location for his last work of art produced for Iowa State, Conversations, just two months before his death in 1961. During his twenty-one year tenure, Christian Petersen—an artist—permanently changed the face of campus aesthetically and academically, establishing a visual legacy at Iowa State University that is still honored today.

Christian Petersen's Panthers FOUND! Learn more about Petersen's Panthers

Image of the Marrage Ring sculpture

The Aesthetic Campus: A Timeline of Christian Petersen's Artistic Legacy at ISU

1933: Petersen received first commission from President Raymond Hughes at Iowa State College for a fountain for the Dairy Industry Building courtyard.

1934: January, Christian Petersen is hired by Grant Wood for the Public Works of Art Project, the Petersen’s moved permanently to Iowa. While other artists carried out Wood’s designs for the murals for the Iowa State College library, Petersen created the sculptural mural History of Dairying for Iowa State. October, the Petersen’s’ moved permanently to Ames where Hughes hired Christian as sculptor-in-residence at Iowa State College. When the PWAP ended in June, Petersen joined Iowa State College as artist-in-residence and continued work on the Dairy mural, in collaboration with Paul E. Cox, Head of the Ceramic Engineering Department.

1935: History of Dairying installed in courtyard of Dairy Industry building. Petersen began work on Veterinary Medicine mural.

1936: Three Athletes for State Gym and Reclining Nudes for Roberts Hall installed on the Iowa State campus.

1938: Veterinary Medicine Mural and The Gentle Doctor installed in Veterinary Quadrangle. 

1939: Men allowed to enroll in Petersen’s sculpture classes. The Applied Art program that included Petersen’s classes was part of the Home Economics College which was open only to women.

1941: Fountain of the Four Seasons, installed in front of Memorial Union. The Fountain of the Four Seasons in front of the Memorial Union is presented to the University by the VEISHEA Central Committee during VEISHEA. With the outbreak of World War II, Petersen again took up the theme of war in his sculpture (Men of Two Wars)

1942: The Marriage Ring installed in front of Mackay Hall. 

1944: Library Boy and Girl installed in same space as Wood’s murals in the Iowa State College library.

1947: Petersen began his largest sculptural complex, designed to mark entrance to campus, Conversations.

1955: After a long delay, Conversations installed at the Oak-Elm dormitory complex. Petersen retired from teaching at Iowa State.

1959: Christian Petersen, commissioned by J.W. Fisher to produce a monumental bronze sculpture, A Dedication to the Future, for the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown. Late in that year, Petersen suffered a heart attack, beginning a decline in his health.

1961: Petersen authorized casting of A Dedication to the Future, which he had completed in seriously failing health. Four days later, on April 4, Petersen died of cancer at Mary Greeley Hospital in Ames.

1975: The Brunnier Gallery and Museum, named for ISU alumnus Henry Brunnier and his wife Ann, is opened to the public. The Brunnier Gallery, now the Brunnier Art Museum, presented the exhibition, Christian Petersen. A new Veterinary Medicine building was constructed and Petesen’s sculptures moved to its new courtyard. The original of The Gentle Doctor was placed for its protection in the Scheman building; a bronze casting of the statue placed in the new Veterinary Medicine complex.

1979: Iowa passes Art in State Buildings legislation which requires .5% of new construction or remodeling funds be used to acquire public art and continues an important Art on Campus legacy.

2007: The Christian Petersen Art Museum in the newly renovated Morrill Hall opens to the public with a day of celebrations at all University Museums on March 22. Christian Petersen: Urban Artist 1900-1931 is one of the inaugural exhibitions. Iowa State University celebrates its Sesquicentennial culminating in 2008.

2008: The Elizabeth and Byron Anderson Sculpture Garden opens highlighting original and bronze castings of Christian Petersen’s sculptures.

2012: April 21, Christian Petersen's Panthers are installed on central campus.

Christian Petersen's Panthers

For additional information on Christian Petersen, the following publications are available for purchase. For publication inquiries, please contact the University Museums Office, 515-294-3342 or

All the Evils…: Christian Petersen and the Art of War
by Lea Rosson DeLong with contributions by Elizabeth Hoffman and Lynette L. Pohlman
Paperback, 2009
215 pages, 8 x 10 inches

Christian Petersen, Urban Artist 1900-1934
by Lea Rosson DeLong
Published 2007
This book presents a look at the early years of Christian Petersen's artistic career and also includes a revised Catalogue Raisonne.

When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals
by Lea Rosson DeLong
This publication includes the first look at the Iowa Public Works of Art Project directed by Grant Wood, and the three Iowa State murals by Wood and Christian Petersen that resulted from this 1930s federal program. The publication is 440 pages hardbound with 225 b/w images and 15 color plates.

Christian Petersen, Sculptor
by Lea Rosson DeLong Contributions by Patricia Lounsbury Bliss, Charles C. Eldredge, Dana L. Michels, Linda Merk-Gould and Lynette L. Pohlman.
242 pp., 150 black-and-white photos
This book was published by Iowa State University Press on the occasion of the exhibition Christian Petersen, Sculptor at the Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, August 22 - December 31 2000.

University Museums Collection Handbook
Object interpretations by Reneé Thomason Senter. Contributions by Mary Atherly and Lynette L. Pohlman.
196 pp., over 170 color photographs
ISBN 0-9311-09-3 softcover

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