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Fish House Door with Eel Basket

On view

Fish House Door with Eel Basket

Artist: John Frederick Peto (American, 1854 - 1907)

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

Text Entries

John Frederick Peto is one of America’s most original still-life painters, and Fish House Door with Eel Basket must rank as one of his most intriguing and important works. While there are numerous precedents in the history of earlier European and American still-life painting for tabletop arrangements, and a few as well for the more demanding illusionary wall compositions, Peto brought fresh imagination and new personal solutions to his handling of these subjects.

First as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the late 1870s and later as a professional artist in Philadelphia, Peto had ample opportunity to know firsthand the rich tradition of still-life painting in that city. Early in the nineteenth century the Academy’s annual art exhibitions included copies after the Spanish and Dutch old masters, and the Peale family took a firm lead in the production of a broad range of tabletop subjects. Succeeding them at mid-century were the prominent names of John F. Francis and Severin Roesen. Peto’s own work a generation later acknowledges these predecessors with compositions of fruits and wineglasses, but of far greater interest to him were the commonplace objects of his own domestic or studio surroundings. Not only were they close at hand, but their clutter and casual disarray from every- day use offered him the artistic exploration of unexpected colors, textures, shapes, and contrasts.

Peto became a more self-confident and independent artist during the 1880s, ultimately separating himself physically from Philadelphia by his marriage and move to Island Heights, New Jersey, at the end of the decade. This both allowed and encouraged him to look more introspectively at the immediate world around him: the interior spaces in which he lived and painted, and the nearby landscape of the Toms River shoreline. Correspondingly, his art increasingly concentrated on two central still-life groups. One shows an almost obsessive fascination with books, violins, and painter’s palettes, all emblems of creativity, the making of art, and culture’s repositories.

A parallel group of works reflects Peto’s attention to other pleasures and preoccupations of daily life. Usually in arrangements illusionistically displayed on wallboards or old doors were playing cards, racetrack tickets, beer mugs, pipes and cigarettes—all probably comments on the beliefs and customs held by the local Methodist community. More personal were those accessories related to Peto’s leisure life at the seashore, such as the fishing or sailing excursions on the river he enjoyed with his wife and daughter or visiting relatives. It is this commonplace pleasure that Peto celebrates with the yellow slicker, eel basket, and fishing spear in his “Fish House Door” series.

The general format and scale of these paintings owe a first debt to the famous canvases After the Hunt (first version, Amon Carter Museum), done in the mid-1880s by Peto’s friend William M. Harnett.(1) The first in the Peto group was a commissioned decoration for the Stag Saloon in Lerado, Ohio, home of his wife’s family; that work is believed to have been destroyed, although a record of it survives in old family photographs. In the years following, Peto reworked the design in some half-dozen related variants, all close to life-size. Yet despite the near illusion of scale, texture, and setting in Fish House Door, What ultimately compels our attention is the sense of mystery and ambiguity Peto gives to the ordinary.(2)a

The Utica painting is not just an image of an old door: the illusion is enhanced by the plane and edges of both canvas and depicted planks being nearly contiguous. Thus all the more evocative are the impenetrable bands of shadow on the left and bottom made by the apparent slight opening of the door inward. As always, in Peto’s mature work the source and direction of light are seldom fully explicable or consistent. Unlike other hanging elements, the line holding the eel basket does not cast a complete shadow, and the tiny paper fragments on the door itself are illuminated rather than darkened by the shadow of the basket. What we come to enjoy in Peto’s best work is his delight in color harmonies, especially those based on his favorite blue-greens, contrasting textures of nearby objects or surfaces, and the purity of geometric rhythms within an assemblage. All these reveal a mind playing with the basic language of art, here reinforced by the torn fragment of a picture reproduction tacked to the door.(3)



1. These were in turn inspired by mid-nineteenth-century photographs of game still lifes taken by the German photographer Adolphe Braun (1811-77).

2. For other versions of the “Fish House Door” series, see John Wilmerding, Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still- Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century America, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1983), pp. 157-58, and figs. 140 and

3. Even the Utica painting’s plain green frame is almost certainly Peto’s own, probably made from old boards similar to those he painted—a final imaginative gesture at the juncture, like a hinge, between art and reality.


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