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.
Northampton, Mass., Smith College Museum of Art, John F. Peto (1-24 March 1950); traveled to Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Museum of Art (11 April-21 May 1950); San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor (10 June-9 July 1950); cat. no. 36, not illus.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries Inc., Faces and Places: Changing Images of 19th Century America (5 December 1972-6 January 1973)
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Heritage and Horizon: American Painting, 1776-1976 (6 March-11 April 1976); Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts (5 May-13 June 1976); Toledo, The Toledo Museum of Art (4 July-15 August 1976); Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art (8 September-10 October 1976), illus. cat. no. 24.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century America (16 January-29 May 1983); traveled to Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum (15 July-18 September 1983), cat. no. 189, illus. p. 201.
Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Magic of Still Life (21 October 1986-8 March 1987), Gallery A.
Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art Still-Life Paintings in Gallery 222 (1992?), pamphlet which seems to have accompanied a small show of still-lifes owned by the CMA; the 8/92 at the end of the pamphlet seems to indicate that is when this show took place, but this could not be confirmed.
Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland Collects American Art: Cleveland in the Gilded Age (23 February-18 May) no catalogue; compliment to traveling exhibition, The Gilded Age: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
MOCA Cleveland (6/9/2006 - 8/20/2006): "The Persistence of Geometry: Form, Content and Culture in the Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art", no. 50, p. 188, color repr. p. 26.
|By 1947 - by 1965||Howard Keyser III [1904-1980], Island Heights, NJ and Philadelphia, PA, consigned to the Kennedy Galleries1|
|By 1965||(Kennedy Galleries, New York, NY, probably sold to Alice Kaplan)|
|Probably 1965-1972||Alice Kaplan [1903-1995], New York, NY2|
|Array||(Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, NY, sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art)|
|1973-||The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio|
1The circumstances of Keyser’s acquisition of the painting are unknown, but the scholarly record hints at two possible scenarios. According to Alfred V. Frankenstein, Peto sold a number of paintings to James M. Bryant [1853-1923], of Island Heights, NJ, and these paintings were dispersed among Bryant’s son-in-law, Howard Keyser, Jr. [1875-1959], and Keyser’s four children: James, Cheston, Mrs. William Wood, and Howard III. Alternatively, according to a 1964 article about Peto's studio, there was "a Mr. Keyser who had bought paintings from Peto through the years for a few dollars”; presumably, this references Howard Keyser, Jr., who in turn could have passed ownership of the Cleveland painting to his son, Howard Keyser III. We know for certain that Howard Keyser III had the painting by July 21, 1947, when Frankenstein compiled a list of the Peto paintings located in Keyser's Island Heights home (the Cleveland Peto is No. 7).
2Alice Kaplan was a prominent New York City art collector and patron. Presumably, she purchased the painting from Kennedy Galleries, possibly in 1965.
Alfred Victor Frankenstein papers, 1861-1980, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution [Reels 1376-1377].
Brooklyn Museum, and Alfred Victor Frankenstein. John F. Peto; Catalogue of the Exhibition with a Critical Biography by Alfred Frankenstein. 1950.
Frankenstein, Alfred V. After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.
Kennedy Galleries, "Recorders, Deceivers, and Dreamers: A Sampling of the Variety and Vitality of American Painting," The Kennedy Quarterly 5.2 (Jan. 1965): 71-74.
R[egina] S[oria], "John F. Peto's Studio," Archives of American Art Journal 4.1 (Jan. 1964): 8.
Stuart P. Feld, email to Victoria Sears Goldman, April 3, 2013, in CMA curatorial file.