John Frederick Peto

The American painter John Frederick Peto (1854-1907) developed a personal manner of painting trompe l'oeil still life.

John Frederick Peto was born on May 21, 1854, of an old Philadelphia family. His father, a gilder and picture framer, later sold fire-fighting equipment. Peto studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, but William Harnett's work was the overwhelming influence on his career. Peto seems to have known him before Harnett went to Europe in 1880 and acknowledged him as his model. He would never have painted the way he did without Harnett, for Peto was a born follower, a born disciple, but with genuine talent of his own.

From 1875 to 1889 Peto worked as a painter in Philadelphia, but he evidently was not very successful, and few pictures from this period can be identified. His career as an artist was frustrating. Occasionally he exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy, but he was not very involved in the city's artistic life. He was not a forceful personality. In 1887 he married Christine Pearl Smith of Ohio. According to their daughter, he went west to paint a picture for the Stag Saloon in Cincinnati. This was the great era of the saloon in American painting, and the Stag Saloon had a gallery of pictures. This commission was probably the high point in Peto's artistic career.

In 1889 Peto moved to Island Heights on the New Jersey shore. He had acquired a reputation as a cornet player and could make a living there playing at the community's camp meetings. He lived out his life at this forgotten village on the shore, selling pictures to summer visitors and forgotten by the artistic world. He died there on Nov. 23, 1907.

At their best Peto's paintings fully deserve the Harnett signature which was forged on many of his paintings, and sometimes they have a radiance and luminosity of their own. Peto painted different kinds of still life: piles of books, writing tables, money. His specialty, particularly during the Philadelphia years, was "rack" pictures. These paintings, usually sold to business offices, show nets of tape which were used as office mail holders, with old envelopes held by the narrow bands; the handwriting is twice as legible as in life. On the painted wall, next to the rack, he displayed tiny newspaper clippings, old bits of string, perhaps a notebook trapped in the tape, sometimes an old card with torn edges, even a clay pipe. These paintings have a unique sheen and poetry.

It is remarkable that Peto maintained his professional standards as well as he did under trying circumstances. It is understandable that some of his later work is careless.


Further Reading on John Frederick Peto

The authoritative account of Peto is in Alfred Frankenstein's fascinating After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters (1953). Frankenstein not only gives a full account of Peto's life but he also succeeds in disentangling his work from Harnett's, with which it had for so long been confused.