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!...
Click here to view the original Poem + Art.
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.