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Liberty, Justice, Peace, Honor

Published onJan 28, 2022
Liberty, Justice, Peace, Honor

Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)

Liberty, Justice, Peace, Honor, c.1919

Featured in: From Time Immemorial(Neva M. Petersen Gallery)


Purchased by Iowa State University Library. Transferred to University Museums. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa UM99.69

Petersen began his push for recognition as a sculptor rather than a craftsman around the time of World War I, and several important early works relate to that conflict. Also known as the Great War (or, in the United States, the European War), World War I began in Europe in August of 1914, with the primary combatants being England, France, and Russia fighting against Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. The two sides fought to a stalemate in northern France where both armies settled into a murderous network of trenches from which there were skirmishes across “No Man’s

Land” and occasional battles that resulted in massive casualties. Led by President Woodrow Wilson, the United States avoided involvement in the war for several years but was eventually drawn in, declaring war against Germany in April of 1917.  When the Russian Revolution eliminated the Eastern Front, the prospects of German victory rose, but the influx of fresh American fighters helped turn the tide, and World War I ended on November 11, 1918, known thereafter as Armistice Day. 

Petersen’s Doughboy of World War I gives some idea of the fervor with which the United States entered the war and the self-image of the American role in the conflict. The soldier (the popular term for American soldiers of World War I was “doughboy”) uses the bayonet of his rifle to spear a dragon under whose claws lies a woman. The dragon can be read as a symbol of Germany and its victim was likely interpreted as the innocent victims of its aggression, notably the civilians of Belgium.  The doughboy fights the fearful beast with confidence while the figure behind him seems to be blessing or encouraging the doughboy’s vanquishing of the rapacious monster. This bearded figure in long robes probably represents God, whose gesture seems to justify and sanction the doughboy’s action against the dragon. Posters, editorial cartoons and other visual materials of popular culture of the time depicted Americans as valiant fighters who step in to rescue Europe from the clutches of German aggression and thus safeguard their own American home.  The rays of light that emanate from the figure of God suggest his divinity, but may also refer to the hope coming from the New World, from America. Petersen’s design expresses the sentiment of many Americans during World War I, as voiced in Over There, the popular song by George M. Cohan:

“The Yanks are coming...we’re coming over, and we won’t come back til it’s over over there!”

Liberty, Justice, Peace, Honor is a medal awarded by the town of North Attleboro, Massachusetts to its veterans of the “World War.”  The dates Petersen inscribed, 1917 and 1919, represent the year America entered the war and the year most of the soldiers actually returned home.  The surrounding words of “Liberty, Justice, Peace, Honor” are surely the things Americans felt they were fighting for during World War I and which characterized the American way of waging war.  The winged figure holding a sprig of laurel leaves on the front of the medal is a personification of Victory, and the landscape behind her represents the battlefields of northern Europe.  The back of the medal holds a blank space where the name of the veteran receiving it would be engraved.


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