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The Yellow Envelope Sketches

Published onJan 31, 2022
The Yellow Envelope Sketches

Christian Petersen (Danish-American, 1885-1961)

Returning Wounded World War II Veteran, 1950

Pencil or conté on paper

Purchased with funds from the Christian Petersen Memorial Fun

d. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University.UM92.239

 Homecoming of a Wounded Veteran (Wounded Veteran),1950

Pencil or conté on paper

Purchased with funds from the Christian Petersen Memorial Fund. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM92.211

 Pioneer Woman: Study, c.1938     

Pencil or conté on paper

Purchased with funds from the Christian Petersen Memorial Fund. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University

Museums, Iowa State University. UM92.355

Soldiers, 1950

Pencil or conté on paper

Purchased with funds from the Christian Petersen Memorial Fund. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM92.207

Studies for 1950 Julegranen (Fallen Soldier), 1950

Charcoal on paper

Purchased with funds from the Christian Petersen Memorial Fund. In the Christian Petersen Art Collection, Christian Petersen Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University. UM92.95

 Throughout his life, Christian Petersen maintained his ties to the Danish-American community.  He was a particular friend of August L. Bang, a

publisher of Danish-language newspapers and other materials, including Julegranen, a lavishly illustrated magazine that came out at Christmas time.  From 1947 to 1950, Petersen designed the cover of the magazine and, in 1950, he also contributed two illustrations for a short story about a Midwestern Danish immigrant family during World War II.  The Yellow Envelope by Jens Christian Bay is the tale of a young soldier, Peter, whose family anxiously await his letters from the various war zones where he is fighting.  They dread the possibility that one day instead of a letter they will receive a yellow envelope.  During World War II, most families learned of the death of their loved one by a telegram which came, as they still do today, in a yellow envelope.

The story opens with a letter from Peter describing his unit’s progress enough that, despite the censor’s blacked out lines, his family recognize that he is in Italy.  He tells them about his friend, Joe, a boy from Brooklyn who has no family and instructs them that if he should not return home “and if Joe should be on hand, remember we are pals.” In the story’s next scene, Peter and Joe are fighting in what is probably the Battle of Monte Cassino, a long and costly struggle that engaged the American Fifth Army from January to May of 1944. Just as Joe and Peter’s unit captures the 6th century monastery of Monte Cassino, Peter is killed and Joe is wounded. Back home in the midwest, Peter’s father goes into town to Christmas shop and see if there is a letter from Peter.  Just as he reaches into his post office box, some new mail is inserted from the other side, and he sees that one of them is a yellow envelope. Without opening it, he prepares to leave for home when a message comes that a soldier is waiting for him at the train station. The soldier is Joe, walking now with a cane because of his war injuries.  Peter’s father brings Joe back to the farm and, after he has given his wife the yellow envelope, informs her that Joe is waiting outside.  As she embraces him, she tells him in Danish, “Velkommen hjem!” and Joe replies, “I understand that, all right.  Thank you -- Mother”

Petersen provided two illustrations for the story, one showing Peter’s death with Joe at his side and the other of the mother embracing the wounded Joe. Five sheets of sketches show the artist experimenting with various aspects of the story, along with one sheet that includes two designs for the cover of the 1950 Julegranen.  Two of them are scenes from the war visualizing Peter’s death.  Petersen seems most intrigued, however, with Joe’s return from the war and his welcome from his dead friend’s family.  Though Peter’s father is a

more prominent character in the story, Petersen includes him in only one sketch in which he waits in the farmhouse doorway as his wife goes out to embrace Joe.  The drawings focus mainly on the mother welcoming the soldier home in gestures of both relief and mourning.  Her dress is similar to that of the female figures Petersen placed in nearly all of his proposed war memorials.

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