Friedrich Richard Petri, painter, was born on July 31, 1824, in Dresden, Saxony, the son of Heinrich and Juliane Dorothea (Weise) Petri. His father was a well-to-do master shoemaker, and Dorothea was a shoemaker's daughter. Petri entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden when he was fourteen and studied there for eleven years under Adrian Ludwig Richter and Julius Hübner. An apt pupil, he won six awards while there and was ultimately offered a scholarship to study in Italy, which included the further honor of returning to the academy as an instructor. Ill health apparently led him to refuse the offer. At the academy Petri became a friend of an older student, Karl Friedrich Hermann Lungkwitz, who subsequently became a well-known Texas landscape painter. With other students, they joined in the unsuccessful revolution of May 1849 in Dresden. Embittered by its failure and the repression that followed, Petri and Lungkwitz immigrated with members of their families to the United States in 1850. (Lungkwitz had married Petri's sister Elisabet.)
After a brief stay in Wheeling, now West Virginia, the family decided in 1851 to move to Texas. By boat they journeyed to New Orleans, took passage to Indianola, Texas, and then traveled to New Braunfels by oxcart. They rented a farm there and in the summer of 1852 purchased a farm a few miles southwest of Fredericksburg on the Pedernales River. Petri's poor health did not prevent him from painting sensitive portraits of his family, friends, and many scenes of pioneer life in and around Fredericksburg. Among these are two of his best known paintings, The Pioneer Cowpen and Going Visiting. He was especially fascinated by the local Indians. He painted portraits of the Delaware Indians who were then serving as guides, interpreters, and scouts at nearby Fort Martin Scott, as well as a number of portraits and sketches of Lipan Apaches. His Indian works document clearly, precisely, and sympathetically the physical appearance, clothing, adornment, and something of the life of these colorful people. In his paintings there are no stereotypical fiendish savages. Instead, Indians and settlers engage in casual and friendly conversations, here an Indian child eating a melon, there youths sprawled on their ponies. These paintings constitute superb pictorial evidence of the amicable relationship between some German settlers and some Indians, and so enhance our understanding of the state's past and its peoples.
Petri's most ambitious but unfinished work is an oil painting of a historic scene at Fort Martin Scott. It depicts a group of Lipan Apaches who had come into the fort early in 1853 after being attacked by the Second Dragoon regiment. Among the individuals portrayed are George Thomas Howard, supervising agent for Texas Indians, Bvt. Major James Longstreet, later a Confederate general, soldiers, German settlers, and John Conner, who subsequently became chief of the Delaware tribe. Petri's health did not improve on the Pedernales farm, and in the early winter of 1857 he became seriously ill. He accidentally drowned in the Pedernales River and was buried in the family cemetery on the farm. He was an able artist, particularly skilled in portraiture; his legacy is not only artistic but is significant for the concreteness and intimacy it adds to a historic moment.