In 1973 Roy Lichtenstein famously painted “Things on the Wall.” Using a wood-grain texture, in lieu of his iconic benday dot technique, the pop artist framed a series of objects adhered to the wall: a playing card, paint brushes, a neatly torn-open envelope, horseshoes, a spiral-bound notebook, even a torn Lichenstein picture. “Things on the Wall” was a nod to the trompe l’oeil tradition of painting and, specifically, to John Frederick Peto, one of America’s most accomplished trompe l’oeil artists who employed the device of, well, painting things on the wall — the letters, prints and other three-dimensional objects that filled his studio.
Morven Museum & Garden, in partnership with the John F. Peto Studio Museum of Island Heights, in Ocean County, is presenting a new look at trompe l’oeil painting in New Jersey with “Masters of Illusion: The Legacy of John F. Peto,” on view through Sunday, May 12.
Pronounced “tromp loy,” trompe l’oeil is French for “to deceive the eye,” which is used to describe paintings that create the illusion of a three-dimensional scene.
In addition to Peto’s paintings, the exhibition features contemporary artists who practice the tradition, as well as a section of a 50-year retrospective of New Jersey’s contemporary trompe l’oeil artist Gary Erbe. The other part of the retrospective is at the Peto Studio Museum.
The Peto Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the artist and celebrating the history of his life, family, and work. It is housed in the building the artist designed for his home and studio, which underwent a $2 million restoration before opening as a museum in 2011. The shingled house, under threat of demolition by a developer, was saved in 2005 when the Peter R. and Cynthia K. Kellogg Foundation bought the property and paid for the restoration.
Accompanying the artwork is Peto’s furniture and artifacts original to the house. Although some of his best-known paintings are only shown in reproduction, Peto’s brushes, palette, easel, and still life objects are on view. Shelves are lined with lanterns, teapots, and pottery that appear in his paintings — and there’s even a fragment of a trompe l’oeil bookshelf the artist painted in his home.
His work was largely overlooked for many years because William Harnett’s signature was forged on the best Peto paintings. Harnett was a better known trompe l’oeil painter whom Peto befriended at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). The best of Harnett’s work is actually Peto’s, according to the Peto Museum website.
Art & Antiques magazine referred to the forgeries as “the most dramatic detective discovery in the annals of American art scholarship, the solution to a baffling case of double identity,” comparing it to a John Le Carre thriller. Until the dual identity was discovered, paintings by Peto, assumed to be by Harnett, were purchased by Nelson Rockefeller, Alfred Barr (director of the Museum of Modern Art), and Franklin Roosevelt, among others.
In the late 1940s, an art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, researching the late 19th-century trompe l’oeil movement, grew curious about stylistic differences he noticed in some paintings signed by William Harnett. The critic was able to identify about 20 paintings as works by Peto based on a comparison of style and choice of pigments. While both Peto and Harnett painted similar subjects, their styles are different. Almost photographic in quality, Harnett’s work is noted for tight compositions, crisp brushwork, deep hues, and a polished surface. Peto’s, in contrast, is more abstract with soft, painterly contours, thickly painted and textured surfaces, a concern for light effects, and a bright palette. Especially in his later paintings, Peto makes the viewer question the deeper meaning and motives behind the objects depicted.
As it turned out, a Philadelphia-based art dealer had purchased a number of Peto paintings and forged Harnett’s signature on them in order to obtain higher prices. But by the 1950s, after the truth came out, Peto began to be rediscovered. In the early 1980s the National Gallery of Art exhibited his work. Today Peto’s works can be found in such museums as the Art Institute of Chicago, High Museum in Atlanta, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Spain’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, MoMA, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, National Gallery, PAFA, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum, and the New Jersey State Museum.
Peto’s influence went beyond Lichtenstein. Jasper Johns signed his 1962 painting “4 the News,” “Peto Johns.”
Born in Philadelphia in 1854, he may have learned from his father, a picture frame gilder and dealer in fire department supplies who also gilded designs on fire trucks.
Peto was raised by his grandparents. The household included Peto’s two “maiden aunts” who are pictured in a Peto photograph at Morven. The women, in Victorian attire, are seated in a tree. The women came to live with Peto in his Island Heights home which, according to legend, did not go over well with Peto’s wife.
Peto’s uncle, William Bell, a noted Civil War photographer, had his studio nearby and encouraged Peto to pursue photography. In fact Peto originally went to Island Heights with the intent of opening a photography studio.
He studied at PAFA for just one year, in 1877, and exhibited there that same year, but later referred to himself as self-taught. In addition to being a visual artist, Peto was a musician, playing the cornet and other instruments. One photograph shows him playing the violin.
To earn money Peto played the cornet for the Island Heights Methodist Camp Meeting, and he and his wife took in seasonal boarders. He supplemented this income by selling paintings to tourists and often bartered small paintings for goods and services. Many paintings were sold to local business people and to the local drug store, where they were on display.
After Peto’s death in 1907 from kidney disease — he was 54 — the house remained in the family until 2002. His daughter and then his granddaughter ran the house and studio as a bed and breakfast.
In his lifetime, Peto never had a solo exhibit. He preferred to paint mundane objects such as the daily newspaper, smoking pipes, and mugs through the early 1890s. Some of his more complicated compositions depicting bookshelves are dated between 1885 and 1906. Objects such as violins painted against a background of old doors or wallboards are also from that period and give the viewer a sense of the passage of time.
His most inventive compositions were the “office board paintings,” or bulletin board paintings, from the late 1890s to the early 1900s, with their letters, cards, photos, and other ephemera either adhered to the latticework tapes of a card rack or pinned to a board. The illusion of depth is reinforced with attention to cast shadows, often from a single candle as the light source.
Sometimes humorous and often highly personal, these works are notable for near abstract designs, striking patterns, textures, and coloration, predating the works of the modernists.
Natalie Featherston, formerly of Trenton, is a contemporary artist who also paints things tacked to the wall. Sometimes those things are children’s pictures families hang on the refrigerator. In the contemporary section of “Masters of Illusion,” Featherston has painstakingly reproduced these in oil, recreating the folds of crumpled paper, the shadows at the edges, and the masking tape that holds them to the wall.
“What inspires me most is the creative voice, whimsy, and humor trompe l’oeil allows the artist to express,” says Featherston. “Unlike portraits or landscape, good still life doesn’t simply exist around us. You have to build the stage for the painting, selecting the color and textures. The end result draws the viewer in and connects with them in a meaningful way. This is why I’ve always found trompe l’oeil to be a challenge, and although it may qualify me as a one-trick-pony, I can’t imagine painting anything else.”
In “Not a Pipe” (2017) she paints a photograph of a pipe taped on to mahogany, along with Scrabble tiles spelling out “NOT A PIPE.” There is an open book of matches, and one match has been used. Smoke emanates from the pipe in the crinkled photo, clearly a campy contemporary take on the style of Peto.
Gary Erbe started painting in 1965 and discovered trompe l’oeil two years later, including the works of Peto and Harnett. His work requires infinite patience, and he begins by preparing his palette before sunrise. He creates his composition by preparing a plywood construction before even setting brush to canvas. The painting can take up to 16 months. “I’m trying to bring trompe l’oeil to the 21st century,” he says, integrating principles of modern art with trompe l’oeil. The Nutley resident has work in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Brandywine River Museum.
One of Erbe’s paintings, “The Big Splash,” includes a black-and-white TV screen from the 1950s with TV characters of the era, a TV Guide with Howdy Doody on the cover, and a TV dinner. “When TV was introduced in the 1950s it changed society,” he says. “No longer did you see people sitting on their porches, talking to one another; they’d be in the house, watching television.”
Morven Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan first learned about Peto as a student and went to visit the Peto Museum after its restoration. It had been a long-time dream to bring Peto to Morven, and she worked closely with the Peto Museum. She had also read the 1983 monograph on Peto written by retired Princeton University art professor John Wilmerding.
What makes the work of Peto and other trompe l’oeil artists significant today, in a post-photography era, says Allan, is the skill. “When people look closely, they see that what they’re looking at is not actually burlap, and it boggles the mind in a way that doesn’t happen with a photograph. And there are layers of meaning. Erbe includes tiny things that would never be photographed. Every thing is included for a reason.” Even the frames around Erbe’s paintings have been designed by the artist to continue to fool the eye.
Masters of Illusion: The Legacy of John F. Peto, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On view through Sunday, May 12. $8 to $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.