The Poor Man's Store
John Frederick Peto, American, 1854–1907 American
90.17 x 65.09 cm (35 1/2 x 25 5/8 in.)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas and panel
Forkner and Gill Family Gallery (Gallery 238)
John Frederick Peto’s painting of a shabby but colorful storefront window belongs to the school of trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) paintings associated with William Michael Harnett link. It is an early masterpiece in a career that stretched from 1877, when Peto enrolled for a year at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, until his death thirty years later. While living in Philadelphia, Peto became friendly with Harnett and borrowed many of his subjects and compositional devices, although he worked in his own distinct, more painterly style. The canvas of The Poor Man’s Store depicts brightly colored candies, peanuts, gingerbread, and fruit for sale. It is surrounded by a wooden frame illusionistically painted to simulate a door, shelf, and wall.
Such shop windows were characteristic of Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. A contemporary reviewer described one of Peto’s earlier paintings of the same subject in the Philadelphia Record in 1880:
link cleverly illustrates a familiar phase of our street life, and presents upon canvas one of the most prominent of Philadelphia’s distinctive features. A rough, ill-constructed board shelf holds the “Poor Man’s Store”—a half dozen rosy-cheeked apples, some antique gingerbread, a few jars of cheap confectionery “Gibraltars” and the like, and, to give all a proper finish and lend naturalness to the decorative surroundings of the goods, a copy of The Record has been spread beneath.”link
It was not unusual for Peto to paint several versions of a theme, and the Museum’s picture seems to be similar to the painting described in the Record except for the presence of the newspaper in the earlier work. Instead, it has been replaced by signs advertising “Lodging” and “Good board $3.00 a week.” The metal numbered plaque hanging above the window, the piece of string, and the torn remains of notices were some of Peto’s favorite devices, each one painted to add to the illusionistic effect.
Peto’s penchant for portraying humble, derelict objects in disordered arrangements may account for his lack of wealthy patrons during his lifetime. After working in Philadelphia, he moved to Island Heights, New Jersey, in 1891, where he was largely forgotten by the Philadelphia art world. In the early twentieth century an unscrupulous art dealer forged Harnett’s name on many of Peto’s works in order to sell them more readily. It was not until mid-century that the paintings were reattributed and Peto began to be appreciated as one of the preeminent still-life painters of the late nineteenth century.
1. Quoted in Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 102.
This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting link, MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).