The papers of still life artist John Frederick Peto and his family date from circa 1850 to 1983 and measure 2.1 linear feet. Within the papers are scattered biographical materials, a few letters to and from Peto, and his daughter Helen Peto Smiley's correspondence with galleries, scholars, and others concerning Peto's artwork. Also found are news clippings, exhibition catalogs, and other printed material, photographs and glass plate negatives of Peto, his family, and his artwork, and one small oil sketch fragment. Much of the collection documents the mid-twentieth century renewed interest in Peto's artwork.
Scope and Content Note:
The papers of still life artist John Frederick Peto and his family date from circa 1850 to 1983 and measure 2.1 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.
The collection is arranged into 5 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, circa 1870s-1983 (Box 1, OV 5; 9 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1862-1983 (Box 1; 4 folders)
Series 3: Printed Material, 1880-1983 (Box 1, OV 5; 11 folders)
Series 4: Photographs, circa 1850-1980 (Box 2-7, OV 5; 1.3 linear feet)
Series 5: Artwork, circa late 1800s (Box 4; 1 folder)
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.
The collection was donated in 2004 by Gregory Bejarano, John Frederick Peto's great-grandson.
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website. Glass plate negatives are housed separately and closed to researchers.
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.