JOHN FREDERICK PETO 1854-1907
Book, Mug, Candlestick and Pipe, c. 1890s
Oil on canvas, 12 1/4 X 16" (31.12 x 40.64 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 967-0-102
John Frederick Peto's dark and brooding still life tells us a great deal about both himself and America in the latter half of the nineteenth century. At a glance, in a quick comparison with a Butler Institute still life from the mid-1850s by John F. Francis (no. 18), we can see how austere Peto's mood is; how concerned he is with the inert and inanimate things of the material world. Instead of Francis's optimistic celebration of ripened fruits, set, if not in, at least adjacent to nature, Peto moves indoors to a shadowy corner of his study or library, where a guttering candle is extinguished and the last glowing coals of the pipe are expiring. Instead of sustenance, there is a sense of quiet, inevitable erosion; instead of ripeness and effulgence, wear and tear; not the fullness of time but an anxious sense of its passage and change.
Among the powerful reasons for this stark shift of mood, subject, and coloring were the profound disruptions in the nation's political and intellectual life occurring in the years following 1850. Throughout this period, industrialization was transforming America's ingrained notions of the pastoral ideal, while the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 physically as well as psychologically traumatized the nation's sense of self-identity. The publication of Charles, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, in 1859, caused an immediate upheaval in the inherited beliefs about nature's spiritual perfection, and forever undermined the vision of landscape as beneficent, always regenerative and theologically inspiring. When Peto began to paint in Philadelphia in the 1870s, the difficulties and ultimate disappointments of the Reconstruction period bred a growing cynicism, exacerbated by the bank and market failures in mid-decade. No wonder he and his contemporaries would become obsessed with images of currency and material wealth.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Peto entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for training in 1878. This was a critical moment of heightened interest in the arts in the wake of the ambitious national Centennial Exposition, held two years before in Philadelphia's Fairmont Park, where a large international display of painting and sculpture strengthened the city's reputation as an influential artistic center. At the Academy, Peto had the opportunity of familiarizing himself with the venerable local tradition of tabletop still-life painting represented in several examples on exhibition and in the collections by Raphaelle and James Peale from the early nineteenth century and by Severin Roesen and Francis from mid-century. Not surprisingly, his own first attempts at still life were devoted to similar fruit compositions in bright colors. Another key influence in the development of his style, at this moment, was the influential presence at the Academy of perhaps America's greatest teacher and artist, Thomas Eakins. At this time, Eakins was the center of controversial attention over the perceived brutal realism of his recently completed and exhibited work, The Gross Clinic (1875, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia). Eakins insisted that students in his classes study not only casts but live models directly, and from his own experience in anatomy and mathematics, he taught the close observation of human form as well as technical exercises like perspective drawing. Class records indicate that Peto was enrolled in Eakins's night class, which included elements of still-life composition, such as the scrutiny and rendering of light and shadow, as means of modeling solid geometric forms. In addition, Eakins's own recent portrait and genre paintings, such as Benjamin Howard Rand (1874, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia) and The Chess Players (1876, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), would have been striking examples for Peto with their exquisitely rendered still-life objects carefully situated within spatial compositions.
Aside from this early inspiration of still-life forms, Peto also appears to have taken from Eakins his sense of painting as a meditative, almost psychological, act; and as with so many of Eakins's later portraits of isolated introspective individuals, Book, Mug, Candlestick and Pipe bears a similar mood of quiet closure. After working in Philadelphia
and exhibiting occasionally at the Pennsylvania Academy throughout the 1880s, Peto married and moved to the resort community of Island Heights on the New Jersey shore. There he built a house and studio and his only daughter, Helen, was born. This painting probably dates from the 1890s and includes familiar objects around the house: worn leather-bound books, candle and snuffer, pipe and match, and porcelain mug. Its casual and angular clutter of shapes, the not quite successful foreshortening of the match extending over the table's edge, and the dark green and muted oranges, are all typical of his mature style. Hardly a quarter of his known output has any inscription, but the blocky signature here is consistent with those that are signed. Ultimately, the painting reveals itself as a modest yet intense contemplation on the Pleasures of life, whether they be the immediate comforts of drinking and smoking or the timeless knowledge of a book.