John Frederick Peto


John Frederick Peto, American (1856-1931)
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.