Peto specialized in a type of painting called trompe l’oeil, which is French for "fools the eye." Trompe l’oeil painters strive to trick viewers into thinking what they see is real. Peto achieved such an effect by depicting items that in actuality are almost flat, such as the scraps of paper and clothtape letter rack. As a result, viewers cannot rely on spatial clues to distinguish between reality and illusion.
Peto’s choice of objects creates evocative associations. Here the well-known Matthew Brady photograph of Abraham Lincoln carries with it memories of the president’s assassination. The jack of hearts, often used as a wild card, alludes to elements of chance and luck. In a humorous touch, Peto rendered a cigarette butt at the bottom of the canvas, making it appear to rest on the picture’s frame. The exact meaning of this grouping remains unclear, but Peto evidently saw his world as simultaneously tragic and comic.Peto was a master of the "rack picture," a type of trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") painting that depicts, with scrupulous detail, miscellaneous scraps of paper attached to a wooden board by strips of cloth tape. Portrayed here is a letter-rack grid with a central X, inside which the artist tacked envelopes, cards, a Jack of Hearts, and a well-known Mathew Brady photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Peto began painting these pictures to decorate offices--as illusions of bulletin boards.
Peto was something of a recluse and worked most of his life in obscurity, first in Philadelphia and later in the seaside village of Island Heights, New Jersey. He was devoted to battered lamps, old candlesticks, dilapidated books, and similar things. In this he ran counter to the taste of his times, which preferred still lifes of rich, rare, and fancy objects. His work thus failed to attract a large audience during his lifetime.