Credit Line: Purchased by University Museums. The acquisition, conservation and installation was supported by John and Mary Pappajohn, Des Moines, Iowa; Philip and Susan (Kretschmar) Sargent; Dr. 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. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
Around 1920, Christian Petersen (Danish - American 1885 - 1961) installed two large, over life-size sculptures of panthers on the estate of a prominent Rhode Island businessman. What we have come to call the Petersen Panthers were placed atop two tall pillars at an entrance to Wildacres, the estate of Charles J. Davol of Providence, Rhode Island.
The University Museums knew of the sculptures because Petersen mentioned them in his personnel file for Iowa State, and his archives contained a historic photograph of the Panthers. Petersen identified these sculptures only as being on the estate of Charles J. Davol in Rhode Island and being done around 1920. For a number of years, this is all the University Museums knew about the Panthers.
Questions about the sculptures abounded. Why and how did Petersen transition from die-cutting to large scale sculpture? How did this wealthy businessman know about Petersen? Who chose the subject-matter? Most importantly, what happened to these sculptures and where were they now?
Though these questions remained unanswered, it was clear that the sculptures held an important role in Petersen’s career. Not only are the Panthers on a scale that is much larger than anything previous in Petersen’s die-cutting and jewelry career, they deal with a subject and a form that had few, if any, precedents in his art. Nearly everything Petersen created before the Panthers was small-scale, usually in relief (not in the round) or was categorized as portraiture. Most intriguingly, these sculptures have a drama and ferocity that is seldom found in his work from any period.
In 1993 University Museum staff, along with Curator Dr. Lea Rosson Delong, traveled to Rhode Island to continue the hunt for the Panthers. They looked in the Rhode Island Historical Society's archives, legal records of the county, Brown University, and many other places. Early in the search, the staff met an amateur historian in the area, Tim Cranston, who was an employee of the small city of North Kingstown near where the Davol estate had been.
Cranston was on the trail of another sculpture that had been on the grounds of the Davol estate, a massive head of a Narragansett Indian, the tribe which had originally lived in the area. He knew about the Panthers but he had no idea where they were located. But he, along with scores of others in the area, knew that Iowa State was looking for these sculptures. Petersen’s researchers had also begun to worry that the Panthers had been melted down for scrap in World War II or had been destroyed.
Finally, in 2010, after over a decade of searching, Cranston got a lead that steered University Museums to the Panthers. He learned that a family had purchased Wildacres and owned it briefly before it was given over to the Navy. The family had taken the Indian head and the Panthers with them, and with Tim Cranston’s clues, Petersen’s researchers tracked the Panthers through several owners and auction houses.
An additional connection to Iowa State helped finalize the missing puzzle piece. One person Dr. DeLong talked to was suspicious about Iowa State’s interest in these sculptures. They were no longer in his possession, so he would not share who he sold them to or where they currently were located. The search was helped because he had made several research trips to Iowa State. People at Iowa State had been very nice to him and he had been impressed with their work. The conversation continued however, and before long, he cooperated and provided the information.
With these final clues in place, the Panthers were finally located. Seventeen years and three clicks on the computer led to the Middlebury College Art Museum website and an image of Petersen’s Panthers.
The sculptures had been donated to Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont because the mascot of Middlebury is a panther. They were on the grounds of the president’s home, and no one had any idea who the sculptor was. Petersen did not sign them, and there is no foundry mark. The Panthers were proudly displayed as part of Middlebury’s art collection, though the sculptor was identified as “anonymous.” Lynette Pohlman, University Museums Director and Chief Curator, went quickly to Middlebury College to confirm in person that these were indeed the long-sought Panthers. After all these years, the museum staff knew they had found the Panthers.
As we look at the sculptures now, seeing Petersen’s full composition, it is clear that he developed not just singular sculptures of animals, or even of just snarling, combative animals. He composed a wilderness drama. This is not a passive sculpture, but one that animates the space around it. Ideally, they would never have been placed up so high, as sited at the Davol estate where the intensity of the confrontation is lessened.
The idea of creating a grouping of sculptures that involves the space of the observer is something that would later become one of the characteristics of Petersen’s sculptural designs. In Marriage Ring, for example, viewers can sit on the edge of the pond with the children, and in Library Boy and Girl, the viewer can walk between the two students just as we might in real life.
Similarly, Petersen’s Conversations, allows people to join the three different groups of students who sit on and lean against the wall and imagine their conversations and interactions. The Panthers seem to have been the first sculptures in which he used this device. As nearly as we can tell, these were the first sculptures by Petersen which were large enough to create this dramatic extension of sculptural experience.
Petersen left us few clues about his early career. Beyond the basic quest of re-discovering his Wildacres Panthers, we have tried to learn about the ambiance in which Petersen would have produced his sculptures, with whom he may have shared his artistic interests, and the circumstances surrounding Charles J. Davol and his hunting estate. While many of our questions remain unanswered, we do know that Petersen valued his bronze Panthers and they were among the very few works from early in his career that he cited and of which he kept photographs. It suggests that he did not want them forgotten and that he did not wish to be anonymous in their creation.
Eventually, we will learn more about the Panthers. Until we do, however, the works of art themselves will have to suffice. At last, they are here at Iowa State University, where they belong with the Christian Petersen Art Collection, the Christian Petersen Art Museum, and the Christian Petersen legacy.
This information comes from an April 1, 2012 lecture from University Museums Guest Curator Dr. Lea Rosson DeLong.