John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers, circa 1850-1983

A Finding Aid to the John Frederick Peto and Peto Family Papers, circa 1850-1983, in the Archives of American Art, by Erin Corley

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Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Table of Contents:

Biographical Information

John Frederick Peto (1854-1907) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Thomas Hope Peto and Catherine Peto. He was raised by his mother's family, the Hamms, and lived with them until his marriage. Little is known about his early life; he was listed as a painter in the Philadelphia City Directory in 1876 and was enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1878. During this time he also became friends with fellow artist William Harnett and was greatly influenced by Harnett's trompe l'oeil still life paintings. During the 1880s Peto maintained a studio and exhibited several works at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibition. Like Harnett, he painted trompe l'oeil still life paintings, most notably, rack-looking structures or shelves that depicted a variety of items, many of them autobiographical. Peto also lived briefly in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he met Christine Pearl Smith, and they were married in 1889. He received very little recognition for his paintings in Philadelphia, and in 1889 he and his wife moved to Island Heights, New Jersey so that he could make money playing the cornet at religious revivals held there. In 1893 they had a daughter Helen. Though he lost interest in the professional art world and fell into obscurity, Peto continued painting and sold many works to the local drug store and business people, until his death in 1907.

Recognition of Peto's contribution to the trompe l'oeil genre didn't occur until over forty years after his death. During research on the paintings of William Harnett, art critic Alfred Frankenstein discovered that numerous paintings thought to be painted by Harnett had forged signatures and were actually painted by Peto. Frankenstein published an article in the Art Bulletin in 1949 about his discoveries that renewed interest in the work of Peto and the trompe l'oeil genre.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The papers of still life artist John Frederick Peto and his family date from circa 1850 to 1983 and measure 1.3 linear feet. Within the papers are scattered biographical materials, including his marriage certificate, a memorial poem written by Samuel Callan, Helen Peto Smiley's notes about her father's artwork, and other brief writings about Peto and trompe-l'oeil painting. Correspondence includes a few letters to and from Peto, his daughter Helen Peto Smiley's correspondence with galleries, scholars, such as art critic Alfred Frankenstein, and others concerning Peto's artwork, and miscellaneous correspondence. Printed material consists of news clippings about Peto, his family, and fellow artist William Harnett, exhibition catalogs, reproductions of artwork, and other items. Photographs and glass plate negatives depict Peto in his studio, with family, and with Harnett, as well as his family, his home and studio in Island Heights, New Jersey, and his artwork. Also found is one small fragment of an oil sketch, unsigned and undated.

Much of the collection, including Helen Peto's notes and correspondence, the printed material, and photographs of artwork document the mid-twentieth century renewed interest in Peto's artwork.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into 5 series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms. People, families and organizations are listed under "Subjects" when they are the topic of collection contents and under "Names" when they are creators or contributors.


  • Peto, John Frederick, 1854-1907
  • Harnett, William Michael, 1848-1892


  • Painters -- New Jersey
  • Trompe l'oeil painting

Types of Materials:

  • Photographs


  • Frankenstein, Alfred Victor, 1906-
  • Smiley, Helen Peto


The collection was donated in 2004 by Gregory Bejarano, John Frederick Peto's great-grandson.

How the Collection was Processed

The collection was fully processed by Erin Corley in 2007 and digitized in 2007 with funding provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

The collection was digitized in 2007 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website.

How to Cite this Collection

John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers, circa 1850-1983. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical Material, circa 1870s-1983
(Box 1, OV 5; 9 folders)

This series contains biographical material documenting John Frederick Peto's life and career as an artist. Included are the certificate for his marriage to Christine Pearl Smith, two of his business cards, and written agreements with his daughter Helen giving her a clock and his cornet. Also found are items about his death in 1907, including his obituary, a lock of his hair "taken as he lay in his casket in his studio," and a memorial poem written by Samuel Callan. Helen Peto Smiley's notes on her father's artwork includes lists of artwork and prices, and miscellaneous items. Other writings include a brief essay on trompe-l'oeil painting in the United States, draft exhibition captions for Peto's artwork, and a brief biography of Peto written for an exhibition. Also found are a few items belonging to John Frederick Peto's father, Thomas Hope Peto, including business cards, and a ticket to the Centennial Exhibition in 1876 which includes his photograph.

Items are arranged in chronological order.

Box Folder
1 (hol) 1 Thomas H. Peto Items, circa 1870s, 1900s
1 (hol) 2 Marriage Certificate, 1889
(See OV 5)
1 (hol) 3 John Frederick Peto Business Cards, circa late 1800s
1 (hol) 4 John Frederick Peto Gift Agreements with Helen Peto, 1902, 1906
1 (hol) 5 John Frederick Peto Obituary, 1907
1 (hol) 6 Lock of John Frederick Peto's Hair, 1907
1 (hol) 7 "In Memoriam" by Samuel Callan, 1907
(See OV 5)
1 (hol) 8 Notes on John Frederick Peto's Artwork by Helen Peto Smiley, circa 1949-1963
1 (hol) 9 Writings about John Frederick Peto and Trompe-l'oeil Painting, 1963, 1968, 1983
OV 5 Oversize Marriage Certificate, 1889
(See also Box 1, F2)
OV 5 Oversize "In Memoriam" by Samuel Callan, 1907
(See also Box 1, F7)

Series 2: Correspondence, 1862-1983
(Box 1; 4 folders)

This series contains scattered the correspondence of John Frederick Peto and other family members. Found here are a brief letter and a postcard to Peto from his father, Thomas H. Peto, a letter congratulating Peto on reaching manhood signed by "Not a man", and three postcards sent by Peto to his daughter, Helen. Helen Peto Smiley's correspondence primarily consists of letters regarding the exhibition, sale, or reproduction of her father's artwork but also includes a letter from her grandmother and postcard from her mother. Also found in Helen's correspondence are letters to and from art critic Alfred V. Frankenstein who, in 1949, published an article about Peto's artwork that created new interest in the exhibition and purchase of his paintings. Miscellaneous correspondence includes two envelopes and a postcard addressed to Peto's wife, Christine, a copy of a letter from Alfred Frankenstein to the New York Graphic Society, and several letters to and from Helen's daughter, Joy Smiley Bejarano.

Correspondence is arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
1 (hol) 10 John Frederick Peto Correspondence, 1862-1907
1 (hol) 11-12 Helen Peto Smiley Correspondence, 1900, 1910, 1948-1978
(2 folders)
1 (hol) 13 Miscellaneous Correspondence, 1900-1912, 1948-1983

Series 3: Printed Material, 1880-1983
(Box 1, OV 5; 11 folders)

Printed material consists primarily of exhibition catalogs and clippings about John Frederick Peto's career and artwork. Found here are three exhibition catalogs, including one for a exhibition of Peto's artwork at the Brooklyn Museum in 1950 which contains a critical biography by art critic Alfred Frankenstein. The 1949 article Frankenstein wrote about his discoveries of Harnett painting forgeries that were actually by Peto is included in the news clippings. Also found are news clippings about Peto, his family, and the exhibition of his artwork, two articles about Peto in the Kennedy Quarterly, and news clippings and other material about fellow still life artist William Harnett. Additional printed material documents Island Heights, New Jersey, where Peto lived, and the printing of a Peto stamp in 1974. Miscellaneous printed material includes announcements, brochures, and other items.

Items are arranged chronologically within each folder.

Box Folder
1 (hol) 14-15 Exhibition Catalogs, 1950, 1965, 1971
(2 folders)
1 (hol) 16 News Clippings, John Frederick Peto, 1880-1918
1 (hol) 17 News Clippings, John Frederick Peto, 1949-1983
1 (hol) 18 News Clippings, William Harnett, circa 1892-1971
1 (hol) 19 Printed Material about William Harnett, 1892, 1948-1971
(See also OV 5)
1 (hol) 20 Printed Material about Island Heights, New Jersey, circa 1900, 1932-1981
1 (hol) 21 Printed Material about Peto Stamp, 1974
1 (hol) 22 The Kennedy Quarterly, 1964, 1965
1 (hol) 23 Notecards showing Peto's Artwork (Blank), 1978, 1983
(Not scanned)
1 (hol) 24 Miscellaneous Printed Material, 1967-1978
(Not scanned)
OV 5 Printed Material about William Harnett, 1892, 1948-1971
(See also Box 1, Folder 19)

Series 4: Photographs, circa 1850-1980
(Box 2-4, OV 5; 0.8 linear feet)

This series contains photographs and glass plate negatives of Peto, his family, his home and studio, and his artwork. Photographs of Peto include several portraits, Peto in his studio at Island Heights, New Jersey, with fellow artist William Harnett, and with family members. Additional photographs are of his wife Christine, his daughter Helen as a baby and young girl, and several other family members of the Peto family in Philadelphia, and of Christine's family, the Smiths, in Lerado, Ohio. Also found are photographs of the interior and exterior of Peto's home and studio in Island Heights, props he used for his paintings, photographs of Abraham Lincoln also used for his artwork, and miscellaneous photographs, some of which may have been taken by Peto. Also contained here are several photographs of Peto's artwork. Of the numerous glass plate negatives in this collection, some are also found among the photographs mentioned above, others have not been printed, but have been digitized and are available online.

Box Folder
2 (hol) 1-2 Photographs of John Frederick Peto, circa 1857-1900
(2 folders)
2 (hol) 3 Photographs of John Frederick Peto in His Studio, circa 1880s-1898
2 (hol) 4 Photograph of John Frederick Peto and William Harnett, circa 1885
(See OV 5)
2 (hol) 5 Photographs of John Frederick Peto with Family Members, circa 1860-1907
2 (hol) 6 Photographs of Christine Peto, 1889, 1890s
2 (hol) 7 Photographs of Helen Peto, 1893-1905, circa 1970
2 (hol) 8-9 Photographs of Peto and Smith Family Members, circa 1850-1920s
(2 folders)
2 (hol) 10 Interior Photographs of Home and Studio, circa 1918
2 (hol) 11 Exterior Photographs of Home and Studio, 1889-1947
2 (hol) 12 Unidentified Photographs of People, circa 1870s
2 (hol) 13 Photographs of an Exhibition, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, circa 1949
2 (hol) 14 Photographs of Props, circa early 1900s
2 (hol) 15 Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, circa late 1800s
(Not scanned)
2 (hol) 16 Miscellaneous Photographs, circa 1870s-1880s
2 (hol) 17 Photographs of Artwork by Peto, circa 1900-1980
(Not scanned)
Box Folder
3 (pam) 1 Photographs of Artwork by Peto, circa 1900-1980
(Not scanned)
3 (pam) 2 Photograph of Artwork by William Harnett, circa 1890
(Not scanned)
3 (pam) 3 Photographs of Artwork, Negatives, circa 1940s
(Not scanned)
3 (pam) Glass Plate Negatives
3 (pam) 4-5 John Frederick Peto, circa 1880s-1890s
(2 folders)
3 (pam) 6 John Frederick Peto and William Harnett, circa 1885
3 (pam) 7 John Frederick Peto with Family Members, circa 1857, 1889
3 (pam) 8-11 Helen Peto, circa 1893-1900
(4 folders)
3 (pam) 12-14 Peto and Smith Family Members, circa 1850-1900
(3 folders)
Box Folder
4 (pam) 1-6 Peto and Smith Family Members, circa 1850-1900
(6 folders)
4 (pam) 7 Smith Family Farm, circa 1880s
4 (pam) 8 Interior of Home, circa early 1900s
4 (pam) 9 Artwork, circa 1890s
OV 5 Oversize Photograph of John Frederick Peto and William Harnett, circa 1885
(See also Box 2, F4)

Series 5: Artwork, circa late 1800s
(Box 4; 1 folder)

Found here is one small fragment of an oil sketch on paper of a landscape. This item is unsigned and undated, but may have been painted by John Frederick Peto.

Box Folder
4 (pam) 10 Oil Sketch Fragment, circa late 1800s