John F. Peto, 1854-1907
Born in Philadelphia and raised there, Peto enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1877 and periodically contributed to its annual exhibitions over the next several years. Within two years after his 1887 marriage, Peto settled in the small New Jersey town of Island Heights, where he played the cornet for Methodist camp meetings. He built this combined home and studio, and with his wife brought up their only child Helen.
Peto’s early artistic efforts were no doubt influenced, to a certain extent, by the Philadelphia tradition of still-life painting. From the Peale family through John F. Francis, the painters of this city were particularly adept at creating fine tabletop still lifes of commonplace objects, fruit, and foods. These items which Peto chose to include were almost invariably the familiar rather than exotic-books, pipes, mugs, and newspaper, for example. His celebrated Philadelphia contemporary, William M. Harnett, often pursued these same subjects, although he tended to paint in a tighter, more precise manner. Well into the twentieth century, Peto’s work was commonly mistaken for Harnett’s, and to this day an occasional Peto painting will bear the spurious signature of his friend. Toward the late 1890s and 1900s Peto’s work underwent a gradual change. Already an unusual colorist and exploiter of paint textures, he became increasingly adventurous in composition and more introspective in feeling. Much of his later work was brooding, even somber, and captured the unease of post-Civil War America. In a direct reference to the national sense of crisis, the artist painted his Reminiscences of 1865 (1897). The image of Lincoln appears in this and several other of the artist’s paintings, and it came to represent more than the martyred hero. For Peto, Lincoln took on the identity of a mourned father figure, closely associated with his own father, who dies in 1895.
Autobiographical and other enigmatic clues appear often in Peto’s letter-rack and office-board paintings. The business cards, invoices, and other snippets of paper he included in these works recall his father’s businesses as a dealer in frames and later in fire department supplies. Their sense of abstraction today strikes a surprisingly modern note. Phrases like Important Information Inside are playful references to ideas and facts, ambiguously concealing as much as they divulge. What is revealed throughout Peto’s work is a pre-occupation with the process of making art. Also conveyed is his feeling for the sister arts of music and literature, represented in his paintings of violins and varied arrangements of old books.
Peto’s concern with dusty volumes and other worn objects takes on a certain poignance in the light of his own sense of mortality. His later years were marred by Bright’s disease, a painful kidney condition which caused his death in 1907.
Source: Historic Building Architects, LLC Trenton, NJ. Includes Information Provided by Zakalak Associates.