Petersen studied at the Royal Academy of Art, Copenhagen, under Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, one of the first generation of artists of the Danish 'Golden Age' of painting. Unlike many of his peers who concentrated on the traditional disciplines of portraiture, history and figurative painting, Petersen preferred to apply himself to landscapes and genre scenes, painting for the most part done en plein air. This allowed him not only to observe the realism of nature and everyday life but also to capture the light and colors particular to his subjects.
In 1850 Petersen journeyed to Italy. Between December 1851 and June 1852 he stayed in Rome, before traveling south via Naples to Capri, where he stayed until 12 July of that year.