John Frederick Peto (1854–1907)

Old Time Letter Rack, 1894

Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 1/4 in. (76.5 x 64.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2015.5

A master of American trompe l’oeil painting during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John Frederick Peto is particularly known for his letter-rack pictures—displays not only of letters but also of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other ephemera. The Terra Foundation’s work shows used objects strewn across a simple rack made of taut, frayed strips of fabric pinned to a wooden surface. Trompe l’oeil paintings are often layered with wordplay, visual puns, and narrative meaning, and Peto was known for the subtle personal hints he inserted into his works. The newspaper and letters, which bear Ohio addresses and postage, reinforce an autobiographical reading of the image. Peto painted Old Time Letter Rack in 1894, the same year he and his wife briefly relocated to her home state of Ohio. He thus imbued this assemblage with tantalizing bits of family history and the significance of place.

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