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Fish House Door with Eel Basket

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Fish House Door with Eel Basket

Date: 1890-1899
Medium: Oil on canvas, with possibly an original frame
Overall: 60 1/4 x 43in. (153 x 109.2cm)
Framed: 77 1/2 x 55 1/4 x 1 3/4in. (196.9 x 140.3 x 4.4cm)
Credit Line: Museum Purchase, by Exchange
Object number: 65.15
Label Text
John Frederick Peto’s Fish House Door with Eel Basket demonstrates the artist’s extraordinary skill as a trompe-l’oeil painter (trompe-l’oeil in French means “fools the eye,” because it’s so realistic looking).

Mary E. Murray, 2011

Peto lived and worked in Philadelphia, his hometown, until he went to Cincinnati for a painting commission. There he met Christine (Tena) Pearl Smith and they married on June 16, 1889. Peto was relatively unsuccessful in the Philadelphia art world, so the couple moved to Island Heights, New Jersey, near Toms River, where Peto performed as a cornet player in religious revival meetings, all the while painting still life compositions of the objects around him, the signs of his life as a painter and musician.

This painting remained in Peto's studio in Island Heights, N. J. until at least the mid-1940s. It is not clear whether the frame now on the picture was Peto's own invention or whether it was added when the painting passed through the New York City art market before being acquired by the Museum in 1965. The frame is unusual in both finish and function. Traditional gilded frames are decorative objects in their own right that physically protect the works they surround while simultaneously enhancing their visual impact. The Peto frame likewise serves as a protective border, but its aesthetic role has been sacrificed in favor of extending in a brilliantly inventive fashion the illusionistic fiction that Peto created within the picture. In a gilded frame, whatever fictive space the artist created within the painting is usually terminated by gilded decorative details at the frame's sight edge. The Peto frame, by contrast, extends the illusionism of the painting into the viewer's real space. Through the use of four wide boards that approximate the color and scale of the ones in the painting, the frame takes on the role of a real window frame, one that provides the rationale for the illusionistic shadow Peto incorporated into the left side of the painting. The questions this frame raises about what is real and what is not extends to its raised outer edge, where the real shadow this edge creates echoes the fictive shadow Peto depicted in the painting.

1. Peto's 1885 painting The Poor Man's Store, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has a frame that is similar in color and finish to the Museum's frame. [This statement needs to be confirmed. Also ask the MFA if they have any information when their frame was made.] A small wooden shelf that reputably came from Peto's studio, painted the same green color as the Museum's frame, is in the collection of Paul Worman, New York, N.Y., and seen by Paul D. Schweizer in December 1996, suggests that both the Utica and Boston frames date from Peto's lifetime. At least three other paintings by Peto might have frames that are relevant to the Museum's frame. See, John Wilmerding, Important Information Inside. The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century America (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1983), 163, 182, 185.

Paul D. Schweizer
August 2010

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