Very little is known about the formal art training of painter John Frederick Peto. What is clear is that he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1877 and over the next six or seven years he submitted work for the school's annual exhibitions. During his studies he met painter William Harnett, and the two would form a life long association based on an enthusiasm for "trompe l'oeil" painting.
Unlike his friend however, Peto would not paint anything but used and worn objects that were far from the favored opulence of the materials and subjects of nineteenth century paintings. Instead his work often depicted small tributes to Abraham Lincoln, musical instruments or objects mounted in bulletin board fashion in the scene. The "trompe l'oeil" or trick of the eye, technique relied on highly finished work, and Peto would perfect his own style within this method. At the time of his death many of his canvases were left unsigned, and an unscrupulous dealer was guilty of forging the significantly more famous name of Harnett to many of Peto's works. Strong academic investigation and research over the past decades have been able to distinguish which works actually belong to Peto.
Peto maintained a studio from 1879 to 1889, but sales of his work did not provide a very comfortable lifestyle. His subjects would not find any favor with the public and the painter would make ends meet playing the cornet. Music would serve as his second career throughout the majority of his life.
The artist married in 1887, and also began visiting the New Jersey resort community of Island Heights. He realized that he would be able to sustain a quiet and simple life in this town through his two-part career as a musician and artist. He would play cornet at Methodist revival meetings and create his realist paintings of photographic detail to sell to local shops and neighbors.
Unfortunately, personal problems would plague the artist throughout his life and coupled with the strain of near-poverty and failing health, Peto died in 1907.