Born in Elgin, Illinois as Jennie Christine, Peterson began drawing at a young age and took art lessons through the public school system in her hometown. At the age of nineteen, she arrived in New York to study at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute under Arthur Wesley Dow, and eventually became an instructor of painting at the school. After she graduated from Pratt in 1901, she was appointed the Drawing Supervisor of Brooklyn Public Schools and she began studying under Frank Vincent DuMond at the Art Students League of New York. In 1907 Peterson left for Europe and studied with Frank Brangwyn in London, Jacques Blanche and Andre L'Hote in Paris, and Joaquin Soralla in Madrid.
Peterson frequented the famed salons of the Stein families where she encountered works from the studios of Picasso, Matisse, Leger, Braque, and Cézanne, an experience she later admitted was a bit overwhelming. These European experiences greatly influenced Peterson to abandon the dark tonalities of the academic traditions in favor of the vivid colors, bold patterns, and bright light of the avant-garde art of Paris.
Percival Lowell, a renowned writer and astronomer, showed Peterson's work in Paris and arranged her first one-person exhibition in America, at the St. Botolph Club in Boston in 1909. She exhibited thirty-three paintings from her sojourns to Paris and Venice. Soon afterwards, Peterson had yet another successful exhibition in New York City where she settled upon her return from Europe. In 1910, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida introduced Peterson to Louis Comfort Tiffany. As a result, Peterson was invited to paint at Laurelton Hall, Tiffany's Long Island Estate and was given a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1914.
By 1912, she was teaching watercolor painting at the Art Students League and at the Maryland Institute. She had rich patrons and was considered equal to the best of the male painters of the day. After 1925, she focused predominantly on what she called "flower portraits," vibrant still lifes, which frequently included opulent backgrounds. In 1938 Peterson was named the "most outstanding individual of the year" by the American Historical Society. She was only the second women to receive the honor.
Peterson's work is in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Fogg Museum at Harvard, the Richmond Indiana Art Museum, and The Society of Four Arts in Palm Beach among others.
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