Lot 24
  • 24

John Frederick Peto 1854 - 1907

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • John Frederick Peto
  • Old Time Letter Rack
  • signed John F. Peto and dated 94 (lower left); also signed, titled and inscribed Old Time Letter Rack/John F. Peto/Artist 1894/Island Heights/N.J. on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 30 by 25 1/8 inches
  • (76.2 by 63.8 cm)


An unknown estate, Los Angeles, California
Sold: John Moran Auctioneers, Altadena, California, October 17, 2006, lot 53, illustrated
Acquired by the present owner at the above sale


Savannah, Georgia, Savannah College of Art and Design, Nature's Banquet: 19th Century American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, January-March 2010

Catalogue Note

In the present work, John Frederick Peto presents an arrangement of miscellaneous objects hanging on a letter rack. Rendering the details of such sundries as a newspaper, several envelopes and a feather with remarkable accuracy, Peto demonstrates his mastery over the trompe-l’oeil style, a particularly challenging form of visual expression. The painting is representative of one of the two types of still-life painting the artist executed in his mature period. Like the best of the letter rack paintings, the present work is significant for the artist’s exploration of the tension between the three-dimensionality of the objects he depicts and the inherent two-dimensionality of the canvas.

While trompe-l’oeil has clear art historical precedents in antiquity as well as in 17th and 18th century Europe, Peto skillfully adapts the technique to his own time and place in 19th century America. Indeed, Peto fills this composition with autobiographical references: his inclusion of envelopes postmarked Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, as well as another addressed to Peto himself in Island Heights, New Jersey and the copy of Dayton’s Evening Herald newspaper, refer to the period in the late 1880s and early 1890s during which the artist traveled regularly between Ohio and New Jersey. Peto’s allusions to his own life ultimately distinguish his work from his contemporaries such as William Michael Harnett and John Haberle who, while working with similar imagery and style, restricted their intent to showcasing artistic skill. Beyond the elements of personal history and visual play Peto’s compositions present, however, works like Old Time Letter Rack also exhibit a striking abstraction of color, pattern and form that seems to evoke the aesthetic concerns the American modernists would explore in the first years of the 20th century. The present work was discovered in California in 2006; its previous history is unknown, as is typical of many of Peto's works.