A pair of bronze panthers sculpted by one of Iowa’s most famous artists will be placed in their new home in Ames Saturday. Almost two decades ago, researchers at Iowa State University discovered a faded newspaper picture of the panthers at the entrance of a private hunting estate in Rhode Island in the personal papers of Danish artist Christian Petersen.
Petersen came to the Ames campus as the country’s first permanent artist-in-residence, and had written in his resume that the panthers were created about 1920. I.S.U. Museum Chief Curator, Lynette Pohlman, says the 20-year search ended this year.
“I always say it took us 20 years and three seconds. We punched in Middlebury, you went to the art collection, and you went to panthers. Hah! There they were,” Pohlman says. Finding the cats at the small liberal arts college in Vermont was not how she pictured the search ending.
“My visual image was to have, if you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark the last scene where there’s endless crates of stuff stored, that’s where I thought they would be, or they would have been melted down for World War Two armaments,” Pohlman says, “The moment we found them at Middlebury it was euphoria.”
Peterson placed the panthers in a realistic action scene with a snarling female holding down a fawn she has killed with one paw. A male is circling, as though he may steal the prey. As in real life, the sculptures are sleek and lethal, a prize possession for a school like Middlebury, whose mascot happens to be the panther.
A parent of several Middlebury students bought the wildcats at an auction and delivered them, as a surprise gift, to the campus residence of college president John McCardell. They stayed there for 10 years.
“The thought occurred briefly we might want to paint little Bambi purple and put a W on it for Williams, one of our major athletic rivals, just to demonstrate what we hoped would happen from time to time on the playing field — but I was dissuaded from that defacement — and I think I was well advised,” McCardell says.
Art historian Lea Rosson DeLong served as Iowa State’s chief detective, and says that in the 92 years since the panthers were cast, they’ve been passed between up to five owners, and two auction houses. Middlebury didn’t know who the sculptor was, but once they understood the legacy connection to I.S.U., the college let them go for the lowest appraised value.
Iowa State already has the most complete collection of Peterson’s art, including a dozen other major works installed across the campus. Museum director Pohlman says the panther statues will help fill a crucial gap in Peterson’s pre-Iowa career.
“His day job was this jewelry dye cutting, and his passion was to be a fine art sculptor, so he was creating things that were two to three inches in diameter and then he creates these nine-and-a- half foot full-scale, if not larger than life, panthers, that’s kind of a great accomplishment, and we believe these are the ones where he really stepped up and said I’m a sculptor,” according to Pohlman.
The big cats will be installed in a wooded sculpture garden across from the Christian Peterson Art Museum on central campus begining at one p.m. The public is invited to view the installation.