University Museums finally finds Petersen’s panthers, brings them home to campus

Melis Meas

After around 20 years of diligent searching, Iowa State University Museums has successfully acquired the Petersen’s Panthers.

The bronze, life-sized sculptures of two panthers will be a part of Iowa State’s Art on Campus Collection.

Christian Petersen created the Petersen’s Panthers in the early 1920s for Charles Davol’s estate, called Wildacres, in Rhode Island.

Petersen, Iowa State’s first artist-in-residence from 1935 until 1955, left the East Coast for the Midwest in November 1928, leaving the past behind him.

Lea Rosson Delong, art historian and curator, hosted a lecture about the discovery of the panthers.

“He had mentioned them in his archives and included a photo of them at Wildacres,” Delong said.

The photograph, and knowledge of their existence, is all researchers had to use to search for the sculpture.

“The photograph was all we has to go off as we searched,” she said. “We stared and stared at the photo.”

The main question in the minds of those searching, Delong said, was “what happened to them and where were they?”

With so many unanswered questions and only knowing of their original location in Rhode Island, Delong and Lynette Pohlman — Iowa State’s director and chief curator for University Museums — traveled to the East Coast many times throughout the years.

“Over the years, we searched in Rhode Island and everywhere,” she said, with Wildacres being the prime location.

The estate was located in Rhode Island where Davol lived until his death on April 11, 1937.

“The estate was left to his wife, but she had no interest in Wildacres,” Delong said.

Years later, a story about Wildacres was written in the Providence Journal.

“The description was that the land was well-kept but deserted, with an Indian head and the bronzed lions,” Delong said. “Clearly the bronzed lions were Petersen’s panthers.”

The estate was eventually sold to a family, but in 1939, the Navy took over the property and the family took with them the “bronzed lions” for their new home.

Delong and Pohlman got in touch with Tim Cranston, a historian who was trying to get a hold of the Indian head at Wildacres.

“In 2010, Tim Cranston got a lead that led to the Petersen Panthers after he discovered the Indian head,” Delong said.

The bronze panthers were auctioned off, and because of no knowledge of Petersen creating the sculptures, the author was assigned as being anonymous.

“After finding a source, he wouldn’t tell where they were,” Delong said. “Then, after informing him of Iowa State’s Petersen connection, he contacted who he knew and informed us of the location.”

Petersen’s life-sized bronze panthers were located at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt.

“They were at Middlebury because their mascot is a panther,” she said. “And they were displayed in Middlebury’s art collection.”

After finally finding the bronze panthers at Middlebury’s campus, examining them found a new surprise, not caught in the photos.

The panthers were on ground level at Middlebury, as opposed to being high up in the Wildacres photos. In real life, one panther actually has a deer beneath the paw from a killing. The snarls are both panthers reacting to one another.

“In the photograph, we could not see the deer,” Delong said.

Once the panthers were located, it was important to immediately transfer them to Iowa State, and within a year, they were taken out of Middlebury.

When the panthers are installed at Iowa State, they will be on the ground.

“It’s the way he would have wanted them,” Delong said. “We know that Petersen valued the bronze panthers.”

Middlebury College understood the importance of the bronze panthers to Iowa State and were “kind and gracious,” Pohlman said of process. “They were excited for us to add to our collection.”

The process of getting the panthers to Iowa State was thanks to the kind and generous donors of University Museums.

“The cost of the panthers were all privately raised money and donations,” said Allison Sheridan, collections manager and communications coordinator for University Museums.

“We sent the panthers to Connecticut where they are in the process of conservation with Francis Miller,” she said. “They were in bad shape.”

Now that the panthers are at Iowa State with many other of Petersen’s work, the unveiling of the life-sized bronze panthers is the next step.

“The bronze panthers will be a part of the Veishea parade on April 21,” Sheridan said. “Then after, they will installed at the Anderson Sculpture Garden at Morrill Hall.”

The panthers will be around 4 to 4.5 feet a part from each other, in order for people to see the power of the stance.

“Petersen’s name will never be forgotten,” Delong said. “At last, [the panthers] are here at Iowa State where they belong.”