Signed and dated at lower left: “John F Peto/89”
One of only four known works by Peto centering on US Treasury notes, this previously unknown painting embodies the artist’s unique contribution to nineteenth century American art.
In 1886 the Secret Service arrested Peto’s friend William Harnett for a depiction of a five dollar bill. Despite falling within the spirit of the law, the Solicitor of the Treasury declined to prosecute the case, having decided that no fraud was intended. Many artists continued to depict currency despite (or in spite of) this occurence and their own personal conversations with US Secret Service agents.
John Frederick Peto was born in Philadelphia. In 1878 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he befriended William Michael Harnett, whose trompe l’oeil still lifes exerted a decisive influence on his career. Peto opened a studio in Philadelphia in 1880, and earned a meager living by painting a variety of still life subjects such as piles of books, table tops, doors with hanging musical instruments, and rack pictures.
A cornetist as well as a painter, Peto began to perform for the Methodist Island Heights Camp Meeting Association in New Jersey, where he built a house in 1889. He painted in semi-seclusion and obscurity in that community for the remainder of his life, and was almost completely forgotten until 1949, when Alfred Frankenstein published an article in which he identified nineteen paintings from major private collections and museums that had been attributed to Harnett but had in fact been painted by Peto. He has since emerged as a distinct artistic personality whose work can be differentiated from Harnett’s by its looser brushwork, warm tonality, and aura of subtle melancholy created by his tendency to represent objects deteriorated by age
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