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Christian Petersen's Panthers

Petersen's Panthers Found

A Search for the Panthers

by Lea Rosson DeLong, 9/2010


When the University Museums began its extensive research into the art of Christian Petersen back in 2000, we thought we would add perhaps a few hundred works to those already known. Petersen (1885-1961) has the distinction of being the first artist-in-residence at any American college, a position he held from 1934 until 1955. He is best known for the many sculptures found throughout the Iowa State campus, such as the Fountain of the Four Seasons in front of the Memorial Union, the History of Dairying sculpted mural cycle, and The Gentle Doctor statue. What we have learned over the past decade is that Petersen was a far more prolific artist than we imagined, and his catalogue raisonné is much larger than we ever expected.

Among the intriguing aspects of his career is the portion before he came to Iowa State, when he worked on the east coast, mainly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Petersen seemed to want to forget that part of his life, and he rarely talked about his career before he left the East and came to the Midwest in 1928. Yet, a look through his archives revealed evidence that he had produced important work there, including several commissions for public art. The subject of his early career was explored in the book Christian Petersen: Urban Artist, 1900-1934, published by the University Museums in 2007. Several important works from that period (such as the Spanish-American War Memorial of 1923 and the Battery D Memorial of 1924) were located, and a good deal of information about the circumstances of their creation were revealed in the book, but one major sculpture continued to elude us.

Old photograph of the panthers
Charles Davol estate entrance Providence RI

Wildacres, Narragansett Bay, RI

For a decade, the University Museums has searched for a pair of over life-size bronze panthers which had been commissioned from Petersen for a Rhode Island estate in the early 1920s. We knew of their existence because Petersen included some old photographs of them in his papers (image above), which his wife, Charlotte, maintained and then donated to the Special Collections of Iowa State. Petersen kept few documents relating to these early commissions, so the fact that these photographs were still in existence and that the artist listed the commission on his resume made it clear that he valued these particular sculptures. Both of the animals were in fighting position, one crouching as if stalking prey and the other sharply turning its head, as if growling in defense. They were placed atop the two stone pillars that marked one of the entrances to the estate.

Information in the Petersen Papers told us that they had been part of the Charles J. Davol estate in Rhode Island. The search then began to locate the estate in hopes that the panthers were still there. (Actually, we did not know for sure if we should call them "panthers" or "tigers" or something else; the old photographs were not clear enough to make that determinations so sometimes we called them "felines.") Museum member and volunteer Malcolm Rougvie devoted hours to tracing the estate, providing such things as maps of the area where the estate had been and learning that the land had been acquired by the Navy during World War II for use as a base, at which the famous Quonset huts were developed. Professor Rougvie found biographical information on Charles J. Davol (1868-1937) and even located his grave at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, Rhode Island in hopes that the bronzes might have been used as memorials.

In 2005, Director Lynette Pohlman and Guest Curator Lea Rosson DeLong made a research trip to the East to learn more about Petersen's days there. We were able to locate nearly every house in which he had lived in Attleboro, Massachusetts and we searched the town thoroughly for any remnants of Petersen's activity there. We also spent time in Providence, checking at the Rhode Island Historical Society, Brown University, and other sources in the area. We learned a great deal about Petersen's early career, but found no serious leads for the only major works of that period that remained unlocated -- the Davol panthers.

Back in Ames, more letters and inquiries were sent out to academic and public libraries, art history professors, historical preservation societies -- anyone we thought might have information. In November of 2006, DeLong traveled again to Providence, specifically now to try to find the panthers. She worked again at the Rhode Island Historical Society and Brown University, located Davol family wills at Providence City Hall, and even went out to Swanpoint Cemetery to see if the panthers had somehow found their way to those grounds; they hadn't. A long siege at the Providence Public Library, scrolling through yards of microfilm led to our most revealing look at the owner of the estate and, importantly, independent affirmation that these sculptures had indeed been part of the estate.

The Davol family fortune arose from rubber manufacturing, especially for medical supplies, in the late 19th century, and in 1909, young Charles took over the family business. He was regarded as an efficient and progressive businessman, and his company prospered. He purchased a large estate (around a thousand acres) along Narragansett Bay which he named "Wildacres" and which he developed into a working farm and a private hunting preserve. In 1921, the Providence Journal ran a full page of photographs of Davol and his estate, along with a long article which featured Davol's recent addition of a monumentally-scaled head of a Narragansett Indian for the main entrance to the estate. Petersen's Panthers were not mentioned, suggesting that they had not yet been installed, and corresponding with Petersen's own estimate of around 1920, when he probably received the commission.

Davol's death on April 11, 1937 was news in Providence, and a number of articles subsequently appeared not only about him personally, but about the fate of Wildacres. The property was left to his wife for the rest of her life and then, at her death, it was to be divided between Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University. (The couple had no children, but some small benefits of Davol's estate had gone to his nephew, Walter.) Mrs. Davol, who had flown up from Florida to be at her husband's side at his death on April 11, was married on June 3 to an engineer from Miami, Florida, and apparently had no interest in keeping Wildacres. It was then offered to the State of Rhode Island for use as a public park, but the State declined it because it was felt that it could not maintain it and, in any case, Rhode Island already had enough public recreational land. Two years later, the Providence Journal reported that Wildacres was "still well-kept," though it was "virtually deserted." This article of 1939 holds a clear reference to Petersen's sculptures when it describes how the Indian head and "the bronze lions" were still there on the estate.

The Trail Goes Cold

From this point, the trail of the sculptures grew cold, despite searches in local newspapers, records of deeds, the Rhode Island Hospital Foundation, and nearby libraries. A letter was even sent to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts where one of the dormitories was named in honor of Walter Davol. Perhaps as part of the bequest, Mr. Davol had given the two bronzes? But no, they were not there. However, a librarian at the North Kingstown Public Library suggested that we get in touch with Tim Cranston, a local historian who was trying to trace the whereabouts of the huge Narragansett Indian head. At that point, Mr. Cranston had no better luck than the University Museums in locating the sculptures from Wildacres, but we stayed in touch and occasionally exchanged information.

In the meantime, a Museums intern, Sarah Gilmore, spent the summer of 2008 studying in Providence, and she continued the local search as her time allowed. She drove along the area where the estate had been, re-visited the Rhode Island Historical Society and searched again at Brown University. DeLong, on a family vacation in the area, joined her at the city hall of North Kingstown, lifting down massive books of deeds, maps and legal documents, trying to find out what happened to the possessions at Wildacres. We spoke again to Tim Cranston, reminding him of our interest in the panthers.

In January of 2010, Tim Cranston sent an email to Lynette Pohlman, telling her that he had finally succeeded in locating the Naragansett Indian head. In addition, the person who had led him to the Indian head also knew something about how it had come to be there and had some clues about the fate of Petersen's sculptures. Cranston explained that Wildacres was owned briefly by the O'Connor/Fisher family before the Navy took it for the World War II naval air station and that they had moved both the Indian head and the Panthers with them to their new home in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island. He was told that the panthers were auctioned at Skinner's in Boston (and brought a healthy sum), but Skinner's could locate no records of the sale -- or at least they could not find anything under the name of Petersen. [Note: The Panthers were sold in 2001 by Grogan & Company, Dedham, MA] It is possible that by this time, knowledge of the panthers as Petersen's work had faded, and they had entered the realm of "anonymous." But Cranston also gave us the name of the current representative of the family, whom we were able to contact.

She didn't know where the bronze panthers were, but she could provide the name of a subsequent owner, and we began to search. After numerous internet searches, we focussed on a particular person and wrote to ask him if he still owned the panthers. We had found the right person, but, he informed us in May, he no longer owned the sculptures. We immediately sent him copies of our publications on Petersen to demonstrate the importance of these works to the University Museums. It turned out that this collector was already familiar with Iowa State, since his business had made use of research done at the University.
Though he did not provide us with the name of the collector to whom he had sold Petersen's sculptures, he did contact that person and by June of 2010, he informed us that they had been donated to Middlebury College in Vermont.

Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT

Pohlman went immediately to the college's website, and there they were! The Middlebury College mascot is the panther, and these two sculptures were deemed an appropriate gift. A patina had developed over the years, but there was no doubt...these were Petersen's Panthers at last. Only then did we learn that one of the panthers has a deer at its feet, a feature that was not visible in the old photographs.

In July 2010, Lynette Pohlman traveled to Middlebury to finally see what we had been seeking for nearly a decade. Her negotiations with Middlebury College continued through 2011 as we hoped to bring these long-missing sculptures to Iowa State and re-unite them with the rest of Petersen's works of art.

Through the generosity of private giving, University Museums now owns the Panthers. They were located and acquired from, Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT. In September 2010, the Panthers were de-installed from Middlebury, VT and underwent major conservation in the studio of Francis Miller, owner of ConservArt in Hamden, CT.

The Panthers were cleaned and the original patina restored by Miller. The main objectives of this conservation effort was to:

  • Remove a failing clear coating on the sculpture

  • Repair casting flaws and possible joint weaknesses

  • Clean loose corrosion from the bronze surfaces

  • Document the existing brown patina and historic research on existing Petersen bronze sculpture

  • Patinate the sculpture to a more historically accurate color based on patination documentation

  • Apply a protective coating to prevent future corrosion

The Panthers were installed on central campus, Iowa State University, on April 21, 2011.

The Research Continues...

Research continues on these sculptures as museum staff tries to pinpoint why and exactly when these sculptures were created; what was the inspiration; and which foundry cast the bronze for Petersen. These ferocious Panthers are a stark departure from Petersen's early die-cut work creating spoons, medallions, and other small-scale designs. It is believed that the Panthers were transitional sculptures in Petersen's artistic career - transforming Petersen to a large-scale public art sculptor. As more pieces to the Panther puzzle reveal themselves, we find that Petersen created these felines in a era where wildlife was exotic, misunderstood, and revered all at the same time.

As the first major public art sculptures created by Christian Petersen, the acquisition of the Panthers to the Art on Campus Collection is a major accomplishment in building Christian Petersen's legacies at Iowa State University.

The acquisition, conservation, and installation of Petersen's Panthers was supported by John and Mary Pappajohn, Des Moines, Iowa; Philip and Susan (Kretschmar) Sargent; W. Eugene and Linda Lloyd; Arthur Klein; Elizabeth Anderson; Max and Monica Porter; Rita and Norman Riis; Carol Berg Grant: Don Jordahl; and Mike Polka in memory of Sande McNabb.

 Panthers part of the Art on Campus Collection

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