October 6, 2009

John F. Peto

Help Yourself, 1881, 8 x 10 inches

Cup, 1890s, 6 x 9 inches

Quill in Inkwell, Book and Candle, 1894, 9 x 6 inches

Letter Rack on Black Door, 1895, 30 x25 inches

I'd like to return to my musings on our responses to paintings and to objects (in posts "Giorgio Morandi" and "American Art Pottery") by writing about another still life artist I greatly admire: John Peto. Peto is an American artist of the late 19th century whose work reveals a very different approach to the problem of vision and representation than that of Morandi; rather than exploring the ambiguity of perception, Peto presents us with tactile things, seeming solid in real space. In some ways, this brings his paintings closer to actual objects: they were often classified as trompe l'oeil but this is too simple a description. In her book American Painting of the Nineteenth Century, Barbara Novak calls the American painting of John Singleton Copley a "kind of ideal or conceptual realism"; "the object as it were presents itself, and the result is a higher coefficient of reality, making the real somehow more than real."

Peto's paintings, in their clear, simplified form and rigorous compositions, are perfectly described as "conceptual realism". His much more popular contemporary, William Harnett, to whom Peto is often compared, made paintings that were an accretion of detail, where the idea of "fooling the eye" seems paramount; because of this, his works are, to me, only a tour de force performance of no great depth.

I also think of Peto as a very American artist in his emphasis on tactile form; things exist as our hands and our mind know them, not just our eyes. If we look at the work of Chardin, the great 18th century still life and figure painter, we can see edges dissolving and light flickering over surfaces as a restless eye moves over and around the still life. Peto's objects are pictured in a calm, even light, which helps them achieve, in their plain ordinariness, a poetic transcendence through his loving and attentive hand.

(these works were photographed from the 1983 catalogue of the Peto show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Important Information Inside by John Wilmerding.)


  1. ...such beautiful little Petos, Altoon. Harnett is so hard. Peto is tender and magical. I love the painting of the bag of candy. Personally, I like him much better than Morandi. After spending time in the Morandi show last winter, I wearily climbed the stairs in the Lehman Collection and was immediately refreshed by a tiny green Vuillard at the top of the stairs. dona

  2. I like esp: things exist as our hands and our mind know them, not just our eyes. the word 'mood' could be applicable here also - Harnett has no mood. Morandi has the most mood - without sentimental connotations however.

  3. I agree, Peto has many more similarities with Chardin and Morandi (and Uglow) than with Harnett and other trompe l'oeil painters that he's frequently grouped with. I'll add to the list of qualities these painters share: how ordinary their objects are, and how these objects (through geometry, light, and relationship) somehow are transformed by these artists into something beyond themselves--or maybe it's "wholly themselves".

  4. These are gorgeous reproductions of Peto, Altoon. I like your "helps them achieve, in their plain ordinariness, a poetic transcendence through his loving and attentive hand." I disagree with aestheticians who say that the artist's eye must take us away from the ordinariness of the ordinary. Sometimes artists like Peto can make us even more aware of that aspect of reality.

  5. Altoon

    I liked your pairing of Peto and Morandi by writing about first one then the other. Both artists who painted almost only still lives.
    I think still life painters often throw to the viewer a question - do you know what I painted? Inward and feminine, they like to play with space and the primary realty of perception, make you ask Do I really see that?

    Do you think of yourself as a still life painter now, Altoon? Is that the key to your style and subject matter change of the last 30 years - from a landscape painter (outer world) to still life painter ( inner world)?

    Thanks for the Blog


  6. Yes, in a way I now see myself as a still life painter; at least when someone describes me as a landscape painter, I find myself correcting them.

    But I must disagree with the characterization of still life as being inward and feminine; working on ideas of perception is an aspect of philosophy which I don't see as gendered. The perceptual search also applies to landscape or to the figure; it's just that with still life we're dealing with a discrete form, close up. Both the still life and the landscape are outside us. Each artist––Morandi or Peto or Chardin or Giacometti––has their own way of seeing (I think of Peto as very American) but I see no masculine/feminine dichotomy at all.

  7. Still life is such a rich/ deep subject - you have on the one hand the familiar 'domestic' objects that are close to the hand - and on the other, the vision and concepts that apprehend them. It's wonderful to contemplate this whole dialogue and history when you don't have to contend with judging it.

  8. Oh, hurrah! Thank you! I had forgotten, or not known enough, about Peto. These are quite surprising and wonderful -- and could have been painted yesterday. I don't find still life feminine either; but then, I draw & paint plants, and question the gender pigeonholing. Inward, quiet, often -- though maybe the bag of candy is pretty rowdy? And is the only painting of a biscuit I've ever seen, or is it some kind of fancy cookie to go with the dignified cup and saucer? In any case, the spaces & shapes are a treat to see.