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    The Hon. Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection

    JOHN FREDERICK PETO (American, 1854-1907)

    Hard Candy
    Oil on academy board
    6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches (15.6 x 23.5 cm)
    Signed lower left: J.F. Peto

    Private collection, North Carolina;
    with Richard York Gallery, New York, 1992 (label verso);
    Purchased from Richard York Gallery, New York, June 1, 1992.

    "An Eye for Detail: Trompe L'Oeil and Exactitude in American Art," May 1 - June 26, 1992, Richard York Gallery, New York.

    A. Berman, "Masters of Deception: The American Trompe L'Oeil Painting Tradition," Architectural Digest, March 1994, p. 144 ill.

    In its minimalism and strong geometry, this small painting of colorful pieces of candy on a ledge by John F. Peto displays an interest in abstract relationships that seems very modern even by contemporary standards. Rendered with soft, impressionistic brushwork and thickly textured paint - both great exceptions among nineteenth-century American trompe-l'oeil painters of whom Peto was one of the finest and most distinctive practitioners - this tumbling pyramid of peppermints seems like a work by Wayne Thiebaud, a century avant la lettre.

    Hard Candy
    is one of the most lighthearted of all the surviving still lifes by Peto, a talented Pennsylvania Academy-trained painter from Philadelphia whose artistic career sadly ended in disappointment and obscurity. However, thanks to the research of Alfred Frankenstein, the art historian who resurrected the oeuvre of Peto and disentangled it from that of William Michael Harnett, we now know that Peto did not stop painting once he decided to stop "playing the art game." In 1889, after a full decade of working hard to become a successful professional artist - maintaining studios in Philadelphia, sending pictures regularly to the annual exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy and elsewhere, and picking up odd decorative jobs around town - Peto decided that playing his coronet would be a better way of making a living than painting. He retreated to a house he built for himself and his wife in Island Heights, New Jersey, found steady employment for awhile playing the coronet at camp meetings, and moved there for good. He not only lost touch with the big-city art world, but stopped sending his paintings to exhibitions altogether.

    Although he was isolated, and perhaps because he was, Peto did not produce the same sorts of pictures he painted before, when he was trying so hard to win critical approval. Alfred Frankenstein said it well when it said it plainly: "In the latter part of his career he [Peto] was totally indifferent to success because success was totally indifferent to him; since nobody cared, he might as well do as he pleased, and he pleased to do some very remarkable things" (A. Frankenstein, The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L'Oeil Tradition in American Painting, Berkeley, 1970, p. 94). Relying on the vocabulary of the trompe-l'oeil school Peto painted still lifes of great tenderness and pathos relying upon just a few books, candlesticks, pipes and inkwells that were without exception old, worn, tattered and broken. "These are truly nature morte," wrote William Gerdts. "They are the most powerful reflection of post-Civil War pessimism in American still life" (W. Gerdts and R. Burke, American Still-Life Painting, New York, 1971, p. 144).

    Where, then, does this remarkable, sugary, even joyful painting fit into Peto's career? It was almost certainly a work John Peto produced during the 1890s as a sweet souvenir for his wife to sell to the genteel tourists and their children, who flocked to Island Heights during the hot - and sticky - summer months.

    Certainly, by traditional standards, Peto's artistic career was a failure. But given the brilliance of a later work like this one, and others, we have come to realize that a more "modern" definition of failure, or success, is in order. The American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton, whose own work fell catastrophically out of favor with the advent of non-representational painting during the mid-twentieth century, liked to remind his students, "Just keep painting. The only way an artist can personally fail is to quit." John Peto kept going, and because he did, he was able to leave behind this remarkably different picture, both of his art and of himself.

    Condition Report*: Well-preserved paint surface and support. Light abrasions from frame along the edges of painting and in the lower left corner. Faint pentimento of a piece of candy on right side of composition on table ledge which the artist evidently decided against including to improve composition.
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. Heritage does not guarantee the condition of frames and shall not be liable for any damage/scratches to frames, glass/acrylic coverings, original boxes, display accessories, or art that has slipped in frames. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    June, 2009
    10th-11th Wednesday-Thursday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 5
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