Trompe-l'oeil (“fool the eye”) painting existed even in antiquity and during the renaissance. It flourished in the hands of Dutch seventeenth-century painters and also of American artists such as Raphaelle Peale, William Harnett, and John F. Peto. Like their Dutch predecessors, paintings by American artists suggest subtle moralizing, particularly through the objects depicted, which suggest the transience of life through worn and decaying material goods. That sentiment dominates Peto's pictures. Over time, his images became increasingly mysterious, poignant, and enigmatic, as in this painting, Old Time Card Rack.
Upright, vertical compositions, called rack paintings, recall a seventeenth-century Flemish tradition. Typically they simulate a wooden bulletin board strung with ribbons or strings behind which letters and notes could be slipped for easy reference. Early in his career Peto painted such racks for many Philadelphia businesses, using letters, notes and other ephemera relating specifically to the patron. These paintings promoted the business and its owner, in essence, they were a form of advertising.
Many of Peto's paintings were assigned to the more popular painter, William Harnett. A recently discovered inscription by Peto on the reverse of this painting reveals that it is actually by Peto, and was executed in Island Heights, New Jersey, in 1900.
An underlying triangular framework gives the composition stability. The base is formed by the tattered page at the lower right and the fragmented edges of the torn green card at the left. The objects and the rack itself act as abstract elements, interweaving and overlapping as a series of related flat planes in subtle color relationships. The arrangement of these colored shapes directs the eye to the most intense color-note in the painting: the high-keyed yellow of the envelope. From there, the yellowed image of Lincoln leads back down into the composition. John Wilmerding, noted expert in American art, suggests that the Lincoln portrait, which also appears in about twelve of these late rack pictures, evokes both the post-Civil War malaise of Peto's generation and the deeply personal tragedy of Peto's own father's recent death. In many of his works, Peto seems to draw analogies between his personal loss and the nation's loss with Lincoln's assassination.
The somber starkness of Old Time Card Rack contrasts markedly with the appealing clutter of many of Peto's earlier works. The worn, tattered objects in this painting—pages of unreadable text, gutted labels, note fragments, closed envelopes, and the faded photograph—suggest loss and the ravages of time, but defy individual interpretation. Even the occasional name or phrase, such as the prominently placed "Proprietor" on the brown envelope, or the barely visible "JONES" on the faded card, are enigmatic. Perhaps Peto intended them to represent a poignant message that shows only remnants of a life, reduced to its discarded fragments.