It was fortunate that John Frederick Peto played the cornet with professional skill, because he had trouble earning a living as an artist. In 1889 he moved from his native Philadelphia to the New Jersey coastal town of Island Heights, where he built a comfortable home for his family on a rise overlooking Tom’s River and Barnegat Bay. Here he remained for the rest of his life, painting in the large studio attached to his house, and working steadily as a cornetist at the evangelical camp revival that drew crowds of visitors to the tiny resort community. Removed from the artistic hub of Philadelphia, Peto became increasingly obscure from 1889 until his early death in 1907, when knowledge of his life and work all but disappeared from the narrative account of American art.
Indeed, Peto was hardly even properly “rediscovered.” Rather, his name and work were dredged up through the investigative efforts of music critic and art journalist Alfred Frankenstein in the course of Frankenstein’s documentation of the life and work of the painter William Michael Harnett, John Peto’s Philadelphia friend and mentor. In June of 1947, the same year that Wolfgang Born included Peto in his pioneer study, Still-Life Painting in America, Alfred Frankenstein, acting on Born’s suggestion, visited the Island Heights home of Helen Peto Smiley, John Frederick Peto’s daughter. (See the riveting account in Alfred Frankenstein's After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900 [1953, rev. 1969], pp. 13 ff.) Here, in a house called “The Studio,” where Mrs. Smiley and her husband took in summer boarders and raised minks in the backyard, Helen Smiley had preserved her father’s studio as it existed when he died. Frankenstein, intending to remain only a few hours, stayed for five days and emerged with the documentation to establish John F. Peto as an artist in his own right, and moreover, the true painter of a group of highly regarded pictures, some in major public and private collections, which had previously been identified as “soft style” Harnetts. Some of these works had been honestly misattributed; others contained forged Harnett signatures deliberately altered at a time when there was a market for Harnett’s work, but not for the apparently similar canvases of an unknown artist named Peto.
Since Frankenstein’s discovery, scholars of American art have continued to refine their understanding of the rather distinctive differences between these two artists and friends. Peto’s first one-man show occurred in 1950, forty-three years after his death, at The Brooklyn Museum, where the eminent paintings conservator Sheldon Keck had scientifically confirmed Frankenstein’s hypothesis. This show included works previously identified as Harnetts, as well as newly discovered Peto canvases, many from Helen Smiley’s own collection. (see Alfred Frankenstein, John Frederick Peto, exh. cat. [The Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1950].)
Peto, no longer obscure, is now recognized as one of the foremost figures in the American trompe-l’oeil tradition. His early years were spent in Philadelphia, where he studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and met William Michael Harnett, who exerted a strong influence on his career. Unlike Harnett, however, Peto’s primary concern was not to be with the precise rendering of objects, but rather with the manner in which light affected and transformed them. John Wilmerding described Peto’s approach to his subject: "While he works with effects of illusionistic rendering of forms in space, visual trickery is seldom an aim in itself. Most of all, while he is capable of totally convincing effects of deception, Peto prefers to exploit, rather than suppress, the mark of his brushwork. Finally, his vision of the genre is more than decorative, instead of a neutral and self-effacing stance, he makes his forms express deeply felt emotion" (Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still Life Painting in Nineteenth Century America , p. 217).
Through the use of thick, solidly-textured pigments and looser, more painterly brushwork, Peto’s pictures took on a uniquely expressionistic character that was decidedly softer than the hard-edged style perfected in the illusionistic work of William Harnett.
The enduring irony of the story of John Peto is that, despite the tremendous respect his work now commands, and the significant place he now occupies in the history of American art, his work is rarely discussed head-on, but generally in comparative terms with that of Harnett. While the two artists were friends in life and confused one for the other after their deaths, and while Peto was admittedly derivative of Harnett in ways that engender legitimate confusion, nonetheless, only John Wilmerding, in his landmark 1983 exhibition catalogue, Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century America, has thus far attempted to examine the life and work of John Peto taken on its own substantial merit. For this artist, then, with a fascinating past, there remains an equally intriguing future as he assumes his full stature as a master of American art.