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John Frederick Peto and Peto family papers, 1850-1983

Biographical Note

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.