Credit Line: Commissioned by the Iowa State College for the Veterinary Quadrangle. In the Christian Petersen Collection, Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa
The bas relief mural was originally created to beautify the dusty courtyard of Iowa State's former veterinary quadrangle, now Lagomarcino Hall. The mural portrays major research and development milestones in veterinary medicine. It emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, as each depends on the other for survival, with veterinarians protecting and conserving the life and well being of domesticated animals. At the time of its production, the mural represented the future of veterinary medicine, with professionals trained in the science and the newest technologies that applied to both human and animal medicine.
Man and horse: Detail of Veterinary Medicine Mural
Perhaps the most powerful and monumental sculpture Christian Petersen ever produced was the Veterinary Medicine mural, begun in 1935 and finished in 1938. It is a complex narrative that depicts not only scientific quests but also physical battles of strength and will, man against beast. The dominant scene in the mural is that of the man who, through only his own efforts, controls a massive and spirited horse. Petersen’s description of this incident is rather clinical, contrasting markedly with the drama he infused into the actual sculpture: “The protection of the human through the production of diphtheria and tetanus anti-toxin through the blood of the horse.” The musculature of the shirtless man and the arch of his back as he strains to subdue the horse suggest that both man and animal are equal contenders in this contest for dominance. Widespread legs planted on the ground, the man wraps his right arm over the shoulder of the horse as his left firmly tugs back on a bridle in the horse’s mouth. The horse, flexing his muscles and bending his head down sharply as if on the verge of rearing up, seems a 20th century incarnation of the horses and centaurs who paraded and fought across the pediments of the Parthenon.
There is reason to believe that Petersen did have some inspiration from classical art has he was designing the Veterinary Medicine mural. In 1935, President Emeritus Hughes (who had brought Petersen to campus as artist-in-residence) commented that he hoped this new sculpture would be in higher relief than the History of Dairying mural had been. When he added that the reliefs on the Parthenon were “very bold,” it may have motivated Petersen to renew his acquaintance with the art of antiquity. Perhaps as he reviewed classical sculpture, he noted not only the height of the reliefs but also the themes of battle from archaic times (such as the Siphnian Treasury, c. 530 B.C.E.) forward to Hellenistic (such as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, c. 359-351 B.C.E.) The vigorous running or bracing positions taken by the fighters in these panels may be been adapted for certain poses of the scientists who grapple with animals as they carry out their procedures. Obviously, they are not engaged in warfare as the classical figures were, but they are engaged in a 20th century battle against disease and ignorance.
This theme of struggle was one which hovered over a good deal of art in the 1930s, and in no other sculpture does Petersen express so clearly that features of his times. It is not surprising that there were so many images, especially in sculpture, that depicted people in hard, physical labor. (Sculpture itself is hard, physical labor, as Petersen could have attested.) With one-fourth of the work force unemployed in the depths of the Depression, many Americans took any of job they could and were willing to do the kind of work that, in earlier times, they might have considered beneath them. But part of the New Deal philosophy was the recognition of the dignity of labor which, when coupled with the hundreds of construction projects divided throughout the country, created a contrasting image of the Depression. Today we recall not only the desperation of joblessness but also the massive human effort and will that resulted in structures such as Hoover Dam – projects which altered entire environmental systems. It is no wonder, then, that Petersen and other artists of the time took up this theme of work and struggle. The best known example of this theme is the sculpture of Michael Lantz on the Federal Trade Commission building which is located prominently at the apex of the Federal Triangle in Washington, D.C. Entitled “Man Controlling Work,” it is exactly the same scene found in Petersen’s “Veterinary Medicine” mural: a strong, shirtless man subduing a massive, struggling horse (although carried out in a slightly different style), but Petersen’s was created several years earlier.
Published References: Delong, Lea Rosson. "When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow: Grant Wood and Christian Petersen Murals" (University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa)