John Frederick Peto is recognized by the art world as an American master of the trompe l’oeil or “fool the eye” school of still-life painting. He was born in Philadelphia in 1854, went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1877 and exhibited there that same year.
THE EARLY YEARS
John Frederick Peto was born on May 21, 1854 in Philadelphia to Catherine Marion Ham and Thomas Hope Peto, a picture frame gilder and dealer in fire department supplies. He was the first born of five children and, except for the early years, was raised by his maternal grandparents, Hoffman and Caroline Ham. He lived with them and two maiden aunts, Margaret and Maria, until his mid-twenties. Despite this, Peto seemed especially close to his father. Family relationships – both immediate and extended – were always at the center of Peto’s life. Click here to view family documentation.
Peto was first listed in the 1876 Philadelphia directory as a painter on Chestnut Street where he maintained a studio close to other Philadelphia artists and his art supply dealer. Peto’s uncle, William Bell, a noted Civil War photographer, had his studio nearby and must have influenced Peto to pursue photography. Interestingly, a letter written by one of his granddaughters to a genealogist stated, “We learned accidentally that he (Peto) had originally come to the Heights to open up a photography studio before he decided to concentrate on his art.” Peto was a musician as well as a painter and played the cornet in the Philadelphia Fire Department Band and at religious meetings. In 1877, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where he became friends with William Harnett, known for his trompe l’oeil still life paintings. Although Peto attended the academy for only a year, he maintained his studio and contributed regularly to the academy’s annual exhibitions. Peto lived for a time in Cincinnati, Ohio where he met his wife, Christine Pearl Smith, a schoolteacher from Loredo.
COMING TO ISLAND HEIGHTS
In 1889, Peto and his new wife moved to Island Heights, a Christian family resort incorporated as a Methodist Camp Meeting Association ten years earlier. Peto had ties to Island Heights where he had visited his aunts during the summer at their cottage on Camp Walk.
In 1890, Peto designed and built a house at the corner of Cedar and Westray Avenues. Read more about the Restoration Story. A studio was added on to the side of the house within a couple of years. Photos taken during Peto’s lifetime showed that Peto not only painted in his studio surrounded by the clutter of objects frequently depicted in his paintings but the room also served as a photography studio and hub of family activity. Peto later built a barn and playhouse and moved his aunts’ old camp cottage to the property. Family members recall splendid apple trees, a hedge of quince, and a lovely grape arbor.
In 1893, Peto’s only child, Helen Sterrill Peto was born. By all accounts, Peto doted on his daughter and was a very devoted father and family man. In addition to Christine (whom he often called Pearl) and Helen, Peto’s aunts, Margaret and Maria Ham, rounded out the household.
In moving to Island Heights, Peto removed himself from the bustling Philadelphia art scene and lived a quiet life devoted to family and art. While his friend and colleague William Harnett found success as an artist, Peto worked in obscurity in Island Heights for the rest of his life. To make ends meet, Peto played the cornet for the Island Heights Methodist Camp Meeting and he and his wife took in seasonal boarders. He supplemented his income by selling paintings to tourists and often bartered small paintings for goods and services. Many paintings were sold to local business people and to the local drug store, C. B. Mathis, where they were on display.
Peto’s later years were marred by Bright’s Disease, a painful kidney ailment, problems with his aging aunts, and a lengthy lawsuit involving his maternal family’s inheritance. Peto died in 1907 at age 54 as a result of unsuccessful treatment for his kidney disease. A poem, written in memory of John F. Peto by Samuel Callan shortly after his death, tells much about the man and makes a prediction:
Where winding Toms glides gently to the Bay, On Island Heights - a Cottage may be seen There Artist lived - of unassuming way, In snug retreat did pleasures know serene.
"Still-life" he knew, in home as well as art, His studio reminding of Harnett, Where little gems beholder made to start With meaning praise tho'they never met.
So modest, he no masters skill did claim, In stature small, his heart was large sincere; Still, "Lights of Other Days" may make his fame, And praise award he seldom knew while here.
There was one Pearl, set in his constant heart; His Helen too, more fair than maid of Troy - Who as she sang - a Father's pride would start With memories that filled his soul with joy!...
After Peto’s death, his wife Christine continued to live in Island Heights taking in boarders. His daughter, Helen, and then his granddaughter, Joy Smiley, ran the house and studio as a bed and breakfast. The Peto family lived in the house for more than 100 years until Joy’s death in 2002.
John F. Peto’s early work was greatly influenced by the tradition of still life painting established in Philadelphia at the beginning of the nineteenth century as well as by the early work of his friend and colleague William M. Harnett who was slightly older than him. The illusionistic paintings of Charles Willson Peale, his son Raphaelle Peale and the tabletop assemblages of John F. Francis and Severin Roesen were well known in Philadelphia and would have been familiar to him. Peto, however, following Victorian sensibilities preferred to paint mundane objects such as the daily newspaper, smoking pipes and mugs.
Although three quarters of Peto’s known works are unsigned and undated, they can be grouped and roughly dated by subject. He began painting still life tabletop groupings of newspapers and food subjects in the mid-1870′s and continued to paint these subjects with variations until the early 1890′s. Some of his more complicated compositions depicting bookshelves are dated between 1885 and 1906. Objects such as violins painted against a background of old doors or wallboards are also from that period and give the viewer a poignant sense of the passage of time. His most inventive and evocative compositions – letter rack and office board paintings – date from the late 1890′s to the early 1900′s. These show letters, cards, photos, and other ephemerae stuck through the latticework tapes of a card rack or just pinned to a board. Sometimes humorous and often highly personal, these works are notable for near abstract designs, striking patterns, textures and coloration. They can be seen as a harbinger of the same kinds of pictorial concerns explored by a later generation of modernist painters such as Pablo Picasso.
Peto’s work was neglected during his own lifetime and forgotten after his death in 1907 until the late 1940′s. Alfred Frankenstein, art critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, was researching the late nineteenth century trompe l’oeil movement and was curious about stylistic differences he noticed in some paintings signed by William Harnett. Frankenstein was able to identify about twenty paintings as works by Peto based on a comparison of style and choice of pigments. While both Peto and Harnett painted similar subjects, their styles are very different. Almost photographic in quality, Harnett’s work is noted for tight compositions, crisp brushwork, deep hues and a polished surface. Peto’s, in contrast, is more abstract with soft, painterly contours, thickly painted and textured surfaces, a concern for light effects and a bright palette. While Harnett’s paintings have an air of aloofness and control, Peto’s have a more emotional effect and–especially in his later paintings–make the viewer question the deeper meaning and motives behind the objects depicted.
Apparently, a Philadelphia based art dealer had purchased a number of Peto paintings and forged Harnett’s signature to them in order to obtain higher prices for them. Many of them ended up in the collections of major museums and private art collections. Frankensteins work, including an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1950 and his 1969 book, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, brought John F. Peto and his work out of obscurity and to the attention of the art world and the public.
Today, John F. Peto is recognized as one of America’s foremost painters of trompe l’oeil still life. His works are represented in the collections of major museums throughout the country.
The John F. Peto Studio Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the artist, and celebrating the history of his life, family and work. Our permanent collection displays artworks, furniture and artifacts original to the house, historic photographs and more.
The mission of the John F. Peto Studio Museum is the preservation of the John F. Peto legacy by maintaining his house and studio as a working museum, fostering educational opportunities in history and the arts, and serving as a partner in the community.
Jack O’Byrne, PhD firstname.lastname@example.org
BOARD OF TRUSTEES
- Sally Gauntt, President
- Judith Carluccio, Vice President
- Lynn Pendleton, Secretary
- Steven Doyle, Treasurer
- Harry Bower, Curator
- Linda Baxter, Trustee
- Judith Carluccio, Trustee
- Marga Reynolds, Trustee
- Fran Halligan, Trustee
- Peter Kier, Trustee
- Scott Logan, Trustee
- Jean C. Wetta, Trustee
- Peter H. Brink, Senior Vice President Programs (Retired),
- National Trust for Historic Preservation
- Michael Calafati AIA, Michael Calafati, LLC
- Joyce Kaizar, Volunteers
- Kathy Ballas, Membership
The John Fredrick Peto House and Studio is a pivotal (contributing) resource within the Island Heights Historic District, a New Jersey State and National Register historic District placed on the National Register in 1981.
The National Register nomination states: now a museum dedicated to the renowned
American still-life artist John Frederick Peto (who also designed much, if not all, of the house), the building is a Queen Anne structure on an irregular plan. It was built in 1890, and is 2-1/2 stories high.
The John Frederick Peto House and Studio possesses historical and architectural significance of great value to the Borough of Island Heights. It is a monument to the life and work of renowned still-life painter John Frederick Peto, often called the American Rembrandt. Peto designed the house and studio; at the start of this project they still contained some of his furniture and the artifacts depicted in his paintings. Although previously identified as being designed in the Queen Anne style, the architecture is more characteristic of the geometric and simpler Shingle Style. Although the house had been altered, it still conveys the feeling of a late nineteenth century rustic Victorian house. It is unique as an example of an artist’s home and studio, as designed by the artist, and is evocative of his art and his personality. The property is also one of only a handful of historic house museums that celebrate the life of a famous American artist. It has remained in, and been cared for, by the Peto Family for 115 years.
Preservation Architect: Michael Calafati Architect, LLC
P.O. Box 2363, Cape May, NJ 08204
General Contractor: Robert Frizell Builders
2820 Dover Road, Bamber Lake, NJ 08731
Landscape Architect: Barreto/Dowd Landscape Architecture
100 Old Tavern Road, Howell, NJ 07731
Historic Research: Zakalak Associates, LLC
4 Beacon Way, Suite 302, Jersey City, NJ 07304
Site Planning and Site Engineering: East Coast Engineering, Inc.
508 Main Street, Toms River, NJ 08753
Historic photograph, circa. 1900. The project undertaken in 2006 and 2007 addressed deferred maintenance and necessary repairs to the building’s exterior envelope, namely decorative woodworking, shingles, clapboard, trim, windows, and doors, and structure and will restore the building’s exterior to the appearance that the artist knew as shown in this image. Note the artist himself in the foreground.
Late 2005, The building was transformed and remodeled over time. Rooflines were altered, first and second floor rooms were extended west towards Cedar Avenue (since removed), original clapboards were covered by
aluminum siding, and an oil tank was exposed to street view.
Mid 2006, Exterior restoration work begins by replacing non-original asphalt shingles with new cedar shingles. A later two-story addition nearest Cedar Avenue was demolished to re-establish the image of the house that Peto knew.
The John F. Peto Studio Museum several main exhibitions each year, in addition to many other events and concert series. View our upcoming events below!
By becoming a supporter of the John F. Peto Studio Museum, you help bring art, music and cultural programs to our Jersey Shore community. Your donations directly contribute to our events, exhibits, costs of maintaining the museum, to continue the legacy of this great artist in this wonderful community.
LEVELS OF DONATION
Joining the Director’s Circle offers an opportunity to become more involved with the John F. Peto Studio Museum and its most devoted supporters. Circle Members will be invited to take a closer look at the Museum’s collections and special exhibitions through the eyes of the Director and the Curators and to participate in exclusive programming and events.
All contributors will be listed on our “Wall of Fame” inside the museum. Benefactors and Corporate Friends will be acknowledged on our posters and other printed materials distributed statewide. Corporate Friends are invited to use their logos. The John F. Peto Studio Museum is a non-profit, 501-C-3 educational organization. Donations are tax deductible as allowable by law.
Membership support through the Director’s Circle is instrumental in developing and strengthening all areas of the Museum including its unique collections, outstanding changing exhibitions, and innovative educational programming.
- PATRON LEVEL $500
- COLLECTOR LEVEL $1,000
- BENEFACTOR LEVEL $2,000
BECOME A FRIEND
Become a friend of the museum and enjoy these benefits:
- Friend Of The John F. Peto Museum Wallet Card
- Free unlimited general admission for one year
- Invitations Friends-only exhibition viewings and receptions
- Subscription to seasonal events calendar, and email reminders about upcoming events
- Discounts on admissions to special programs, exhibitions receptions and events
- FRIEND $50.00 For One
- FAMILY FRIEND $60.00 For 2 Adults/2Children
- SENIOR FRIEND (62 and older) $30.00 For One Adult
- STUDENT/TEACHER FRIEND $30.00 For One
The museum holds exhibitions and special events throughout the year providing individuals and businesses the opportunity to sponsor activities of particular interest. To sponsor an exhibition, concert or other special event email us at email@example.com or call 732-929-4949.