The still life painter John Frederick Peto was born in 1854 in Philadelphia. In 1878 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he exhibited between 1879 and 1888. There he met and befriended William Michael Harnett, whose trompe l'oeil still lifes exerted a decisive influence on his career. Peto opened a studio in 1880, and earned a meager living by painting rack pictures for Philadelphia's aesthetically unsophisticated business and professional men. He was reputed to have made photographic and painted portraits to support himself. In 1887 he married Christine Pearl Smith of Leredo, Ohio. An able cornetist, he began to perform for the Methodist Island Heights Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey, where he built a house in 1889. Peto painted in semi-seclusion and obscurity there for the remainder of his life. He died in Island Heights in 1907.
Peto was almost completely forgotten until 1949, when Alfred Frankenstein published an article in which he identified nineteen paintings from major private collections and museums that had been attributed to Harnett but had really been painted by Peto. With the advent of further interest and research on American still life painting, Peto gradually emerged as a distinct artistic personality whose work could be differentiated from Harnett's by its looser brushwork, warm tonality, and aura of subtle melancholy created by his tendency to represent objects deteriorated by age. He painted a wide variety of still life subjects, comprising letter racks holding printed matter, shelves of books, tabletops, and doors with hanging musical instruments. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Frankenstein, Alfred. John F. Peto. Exh. cat. Brooklyn Museum and Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York, 1950.
Frankenstein, Alfred. After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900. rev. ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969: 99-111.
Gerdts, William H., and Russell Burke. American Still-Life Painting. New York, 1971: 143-144, 248-249.
Wilmerding, John. Important Information Inside: The Art of John P. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century American. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 75-76.