Born in Copenhagen in 1839, the artist began to study art in 1860 under D.H. Anton Melbye and Niels C.F. Dahl at the Royal Academy of Art. He achieved an officer's rank in the Danish army, and after completing his service, Petersen departed for America in 1864. The next year, he opened a Boston studio. During this period, he worked as illustrator for "Harper's Weekly".
One of the greatest American sea painters, (had his untimely death at 34 years of age not limited his volume of work to a period of 13 years), Petersen's career might have compared with, if not exceeded, that of the comparatively prolific James E. Buttersworth in his later years. This is due to the lyrical atmospheres and fleeting luminosity of Petersen's rare expert paintings which describe the American maritime scene of the nineteenth century.