Born in Philadelphia in 1854, John Frederick Peto was raised in that city and is first listed in the 1876 Philadelphia directory as a painter residing on Chestnut Street, a favorite neighborhood of that city’s artists. Peto was a musician as well as a painter, playing the cornet in the Fire Department Band and at religious meetings. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, along with fellow student William Harnett, whose paintings were often confused with those of Peto due to their similarities in composition and subject—still life. By the end of the nineteenth century, Harnett’s signature was often forged on Peto’s paintings to fetch more money, as Peto’s work received little recognition at the time, while Harnett was well known, and his work commanded higher prices.
A master of tabletop still life pictures as well as vertically oriented rack and door pictures, Peto’s paintings are notable for the realism of their worn and shabby objects. Because the articles depicted show wear and the effects of time, his paintings did not appeal to popular nineteenth-century taste, which valued more opulent imagery. He never received the public acclaim and support that Harnett did.
In June 1887 Peto married Christine Pearl Smith, and to earn money he began to commute to Island Heights, New Jersey, where he played the cornet at camp revival meetings. By 1889 he had settled there permanently, devoting his life to his family and to painting in his solitary studio, surrounded by the battered books, lamps, mugs, and pipes that appear in his art. Isolated in this riverside town, his career began to decline. Beset by poverty, family problems, and ill health, Peto died in Island Heights on November 23, 1907.