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 John Frederick Peto  (1854 - 1907)

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Lived/Active: New Jersey/Pennsylvania      Known for: trompe still life, marine and portrait painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John Peto was born on March 17, 1854 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of a dealer in picture frames and later of fire department supplies.  Little is known of his early artistic training except that he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1877 and during the next half dozen years he contributed works to its annual exhibitions.  While as the Academy he was influenced by classmate William Harnett, "trompe l'oeil" painter. In contrast to Harnett, he painted commonplace subjects that were in disorder and ramschackled.

From 1879 to 1889 Peto tried to live the life of a professional artist by maintaining a studio in Philadelphia.  However he was not very successful because he often painted objects that were perceived as ugly and not the pleasing subjects the public wanted. He found he made more money by playing the cornet.

In 1887 Peto traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he met and married Christine Pearl Smith.  It was also in the late 1880s that he began visiting the Methodist resort community of Island Heights on the New Jersey coast near Toms River.  He and his wife built a house there, living an isolated simple life.  He supported his family by playing the cornet for Methodist revival meetings and sold his paintings at the local drug store to friends and local business people.

Peto was apparently a well-liked member of his community and a doting father to his only child, Helen, but his life was often turbulent and unhappy, due to family squabbles, some law suits and ill health.  Barely known during his lifetime, he sank into almost total obscurity after his death in 1907.  Many of his works survived only because they were mistaken for those of the much more famous William Harnett, and some even wound up with Harnett's forged signature affixed to them.

Sources include:
John Ashbery in Newsweek magazine, March 14, 1983
Important Information Inside by John Wilmerding in Portfolio, November/December 1982

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher form Laguna Woods, California.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, V:
John Frederick Peto (May 21, 1854 - November 23, 1907) was an American trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") painter who was long forgotten until his paintings were rediscovered along with those of fellow trompe l'oeil artist William Harnett. Although Peto and the slightly older Harnett knew each other and painted similar subjects, their careers followed different paths. Peto was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts at the same time as Harnett.[1] Until he was in his mid-thirties, he submitted paintings regularly to the annual exhibitions at the Philadelphia Academy. In 1889, he moved to the resort town of Island Heights, New Jersey, where he worked in obscurity for the rest of his life. He and his wife took in seasonal boarders, he found work playing cornet at the town's camp revival meetings, and he supplemented his income by selling his paintings to tourists.[2] He never had a gallery exhibition in his lifetime.[3] Harnett, on the other hand, achieved success and had considerable influence on other artists painting in the trompe l'oeil genre, but even his paintings were given the snub by critics as mere novelty and trickery.

Both artists were masters of trompe l'oeil, a genre of still life that aims to deceive the viewer into mistaking painted objects for reality. Exploiting the fallibility of human perception, the trompe l'oeil painter depicts objects in accordance with a set of rules unique to the genre. For example, Peto and Harnett both represented the objects in their paintings at their actual size, and the objects rarely were cut off by the edge of the painting, as this would allow a visual cue to the viewer that the depiction was not real. But the main technical device was to arrange the subject matter in a shallow space, using the shadow of the objects to suggest depth without the eye seeing actual depth. Thus the term trompe l'oeil—"fool the eye." Both artists enthrall the viewer with a disturbing but pleasant sense of confusion.

Letter Rack by PetoPeto's paintings, generally considered less technically skilled than Harnett's,[4] are more abstract, use more unusual color, and often have a stronger emotional resonance. Peto's mature works have an opaque and powdery texture which is often compared to Chardin.[5]

The subject matter of Peto's paintings consisted of the most ordinary of things: pistols, horseshoes, bits of paper, keys, books, and the like. He frequently painted old time "letter racks," which were a kind of board that used ribbons tacked into a square that held notes, letters, pencils, and photographs. Many of Peto's paintings reinterpret themes Harnett had painted earlier,[6] but Peto's compositions are less formal and his objects are typically rustier, more worn, less expensive looking.[7]

Other artists who practiced trompe l'oeil in the late nineteenth century include John Haberle and Jefferson David Chalfant. Otis Kaye followed several decades later.

A pioneering study of Peto and Harnett is Alfred Frankenstein's After the Hunt, William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900. Frankenstein's book itself is a fantastic tale of solving the mystery of why these artists were forgotten for much of the twentieth century


Biography from MODERN ART DEALERS:
John Frederick Peto was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1854.  He was raised there and is listed in the 1876 Philadelphia directory as a painter residing on Chestnut Street (a favorite neighborhood of that city's artists).  He was a musician as well as a painter and played the cornet in the Fire Department Band and at religious meetings.  He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, along with fellow student William Harnett, whose paintings were often confused with those of Peto due to their similarities in composition and subject matter.

Peto primarily painted still-life pictures as well as vertically oriented rack and door pictures and his paintings are notable for the realism of their worn and shabby objects. Because the articles depicted show wear and the effects of time, his paintings did not appeal to popular nineteenth-century taste, which valued more opulent imagery.

In June 1887, Peto married Christine Pearl Smith, and to earn money, he began to commute to Island Heights, New Jersey, where he played the cornet at camp revival meetings.  By 1889 he had settled there permanently, devoting his life to his family and to painting in his solitary studio, surrounded by the battered books, lamps, mugs, and pipes that appear in his art. Isolated in this riverside town, his career began to decline.

Beset by poverty, family problems, and ill health, John Frederick Peto died in Island Heights, NJ on November 23, 1907.


Biography from Newman Galleries:
John Frederick Peto was born in Philadelphia in 1854.

He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1878.  He exhibited there between 1879 and 1886, the only exhibitions of his career.

He moved to Island Heights, New Jersey in 1889, and lived and painted there until his death in 1907.

His works are in many prominent private and public collections, and can be seen in the museums of Boston, Brooklyn, and Minneapolis; as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Smith college Museum of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia:
John Frederick Peto was a disciple of the school of American Realism pioneered by William Michael Harnett (1848-92) and Jefferson David Chalfont (1856-1931).  In their development of the trompe l'oeil (French: "deceive the eye") technique, Harnett and Chalfont had broken with the more optimistic tradition of still-life painting prevalent during the new American Republic and exemplified in the works of Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825) and John F. Francis (1808-1886).  Though still conveying a notion that the spirit of an object is revealed in the fact of its presence. (1) 

American still-life painting at the end of the nineteenth century began to favor a more somber, weighty style that reflected both an "antisocial reclusive ness and a Victorian taste for bric-a-brac and antique collecting." (2) 

A little-known admirer of Harnett, John Frederick Peto was born in 1854 to a Philadelphia dealer in picture frames.  His father, Thomas H. Peto, later became an honorary member of the Philadelphia Fire Department.  The elder Peto also maintained an active business as a buyer and seller of fire department supplies.  His son later included some of his father's business cards and printed invoices as subject matter in his later paintings. (3)

From the sketchbooks that remained in the hands of his heirs, it appears that John Frederick Peto took an interest in watercolor painting and drawing while still a youth. He was listed in the Philadelphia city directory as a painter by the mid-1870s, and in 1877, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  His works were exhibited at the Academy from time to time over the next six years.  After completion of his studies, Peto maintained a studio in Philadelphia and exhibited his paintings at the same galleries as his friend, Harnett.

Alfred Frankenstein brought to light the fact that Peto actually painted twenty paintings previously thought to be the work of Harnett.  Apparently, an unscrupulous dealer carted away a lot of Peto's work without payment in 1905, and forged Harnett's signature on these largely unsigned works.  This discovery and the research carried out by Frankenstein and Wolfgang Born in the 1940s led to a renewed interest in works painted in the trompe'l'oeil technique.

Peto's approach to trompe l'oeil was less imitative, softer and more tonal than those of Harnett and Haberle.  Their conceptual realism was reminiscent of the jewel-like clarity of late Gothic paintings.  Peto's work displays his interest in and knowledge of French Impressionism.  His brushwork is "less meticulous and more evident than Harnett's, and Peto worked with more opaques, often achieving a Vermeer-like silvery cast. (4)

Also, as with Harnett's paintings, Peto's still-life subjects sometimes contained musical instruments, including the violin.  He also entertained a special interest in Abraham Lincoln, as tributes to this President are evident in many of his paintings. Peto is noted also for his "rack" paintings, in which "shallow objects, mounted bulletin-board fashion, appear to stand forward from the picture plane." (5)

In 1887, Peto and his wife built a house in the New Jersey coastal community of Island Heights.  Here he lived his remaining years in obscure simplicity, supporting himself by playing the coronet at Methodist revival meetings and selling his paintings at the local drugstore to friends and business people.


1. The reader is encouraged to consult Barbara Novak's insightful thesis on American still life painting in her book American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience, (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).

2. John Wilmerding The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still life Painting in Nineteenth Century America, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 29.

3. Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, Rev. ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969.

4. Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art, Volume II, (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986) 497.

5. Ibid.

Submitted by the Staff, Columbus Museum

Biography from Spanierman Gallery:
John Frederick Peto spent the majority of his career working in relative obscurity in the small coastal town of Island Heights, New Jersey, away from mainstream art circles.  However, he is recognized today as one of America's foremost exponents of trompe l'oeil still life, a mode of painting that was highly popular during the late nineteenth century, practiced by the likes of William Harnett (1848-1892) and John Haberle (1856-1933). Peto's artfully composed still lifes, which range from the whimsical to the meditative, are comprised of worn, commonplace objects that, through a skillful manipulation of color, form and composition, he imbued with deeper meaning, all the while impressing us with his ability to obscure the boundaries between reality and illusion.

Peto was born in Philadelphia on 21 May 1854, one of four children of Thomas Hope Peto, a picture-frame gilder and dealer, and his wife Catherine.  He spent part of his childhood living with his grandmother, Mrs. William Hoffman Ham, during which time he developed an interest in drawing and, following the example of his father, learned to play the coronet.  Although his contemporaries described him as a self-taught artist, Peto is known to have attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1877 to 1879, where he met and became friendly with the aforementioned Harnett. Between 1879 and 1887 he exhibited several still lifes at the academy's annual exhibitions, as well as at the Philadelphia Society of Artists and at Earle's Galleries.

Peto's early still lifes consisted of arrangements of Victorian objects and bric-a-brac that reveal the influence of Harnett, whose technique and iconography were frequently copied by other artists.  However, by the late 1880s, as he matured as an artist, his work became increasingly inventive and highly personal in tone. While both men favored close-up, informal arrangements of objects related to the male preserve, such as pipes, beer mugs and newspapers, their styles were quiet different, Peto preferring soft contours, thickly painted surfaces, a concern for light effects and a bright palette while Harnett favored tight designs, crisp brushwork, deep hues and a polished surface.

In addition to conventional tabletop still lifes, Peto liked to paint colorful and sometimes humorous illusionistic card racks in which fairly shallow objects such as letters, cards and photographs are shown mounted bulletin-board fashion and appear to project forward from the picture plane, as evident in works such as Rack Picture for William Malcolm Bunn (1882; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.); notable for their near-abstract designs, their arrangements of overlapping forms and their striking patterns, textures and coloration, these paintings reveal Peto's sensitivity to the same pictorial concerns that would be explored by a later generation of modernist painters such as Pablo Picasso.  Peto's oeuvre also includes portrayals of well-used objects hanging on old doors or wall boards or arranged in shadowy settings, among them such well known oils as The Old Violin (ca. 1890; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); these paintings convey a melancholic beauty and a poignant sense of the passage of time that was quite different from the cheerful and sharply painted still lifes produced by the majority of the artist's colleagues.

While Harnett enjoyed a steady flow of patrons throughout his career, as well as widespread recognition from both the public and the art press, Peto worked in isolation, often taking commissions for painted and photographic portraits in order to support himself.  In 1889, after spending two year commuting from Philadelphia, he moved permanently to Island Heights where he made a living by playing coronet for the Island Heights Camp Meeting Association, a religious organization.  He continued to paint but shunned the major national annuals in favor of informal exhibitions at inconspicuous venues such as the local drugstore, where he sold his still lifes to friends, local merchants and summer tourists. In contrast to most artists, Peto did not leave any record books or inventories, nor did he make any comments on his work or on art in general.

He died in 1907 in New York City, his final years complicated by personal problems, including a lawsuit over an inheritance and complications from Bright's Disease, a painful kidney ailment.

In 1905 a Philadelphia-based art dealer purchased a number of Peto's still lifes and forged Harnett's name to them.  These works eventually commanded high prices and were acquired by major institutions and collectors.  The "deception" went unnoticed until 1949, when the scholar Alfred Frankenstein identified about twenty paintings attributed to Harnett as Peto's, basing his conclusions on a comparison of style and choice of pigment; his groundbreaking work marked this talented artist's subsequent rediscovery by the art world, bringing him to the forefront of the tradition of trompe l'oeil painting in the United States. 1

Examples of Peto's work can be found in major public collections throughout America, including the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Brooklyn Museum; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Minneapolis Art Institute; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, M.H. de Young Museum; the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; and the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio.


©The essay herein is the property of Spanierman Gallery, LLC and is copyrighted by Spanierman Gallery, LLC. It may not be reproduced without written permission from Spanierman Gallery, LLC nor shown or communicated to anyone without due credit being given to Spanierman Gallery, LLC.

1 See Alfred Frankenstein, "Harnett: True and False," Art Bulletin 31 (March 1949): 38-56, and more recently, John Wilmerding's Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth Century America (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1983).

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John Peto is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Trompe l'Oeil Painting

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