One of the major differences between art of this century and that of the last is not so much that we're INDIFFERENT to subject matter, but that it is not the all-consuming element in art that it was during the 1800s. There is a reason for this, of course. Today, we have so many different styles and reasons for painting that often we care more for them than for what the painting depicts. Especially in the major art markets, if the colors, the composition, the texture, the size, and emotional impact of the painting appeals to the art lover, sometimes the subject matter is all but irrelevant. Especially during the second half of the nineteenth century the exact opposite was true. Particularly in this country, there was only ONE valid style of painting--realism. And while scale varied a great deal, colors tended to be "true-to-life" and subjects should be uplifting and pleasant. Pity the poor artist with a dour outlook, a dark palette, and eccentric tastes. Today, some of these qualities we often find quite interesting while looking with contempt upon the "pretty" pictures our ancestors fell in love with.
The perfect example of this is John Frederick Peto. He was born in 1854 in Philadelphia where he began his art studies in 1878 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. There he studied under the exacting tutelage of Thomas Eakins and the influence of the hometown art icons, the Peale's, most notably Raphaelle and James Peale. It was there, also, that he met and became friends with William M. Harnett. Harnett was a fellow student, and it seems to have been HIS work that set the direction of Peto's painting career, what was known at the time as the "deception still-life"--what we could call today by the French term, trompe l'oeil. Early on, Peto began to imitate Harnett's exacting, fool-the-eye still-lifes as both men sought to "make" their careers, entering competitions, maintaining studios, meeting the right people, and vigorously promoting themselves. Harnett went off to study in Europe and more important, learned that pleasant, pleasurable, interesting, objects with positive, uplifting narrative potential made very "likable" paintings. Peto stayed home and never learned this lesson.
Consequently after a decade of trying to make the grade, Peto decided that if his work was not to be appreciated by the public, then he would withdraw from the art world and paint what he pleased. In his defiance, his subject matter became, in nineteenth century eyes, even MORE ugly and pessimistic. However, it is this torn, tattered, discarded, tragic pathos in his work that artists and collectors of this century find intriguing. With a resurgence of interest in deception still-lifes during the early years of this century, Peto's work has become something of a nightmare for art authenticators due to the man's penchant for nearly finishing a given work signing it on the back, then abandoning it, or in some case painting over it without re-titling it on the back. Add to this the fact that a large number or Peto's paintings were consigned to an unscrupulous art dealer who faked Harnett's signature upon them (thus enhancing their value), and a whole generation of art experts were implanted with a confused idea of BOTH artists work. Today, the mess has been largely straightened out, and surprisingly, it's now PETO'S work which is often the more highly valued of the two.