Ocean County's John Frederick Peto, the renowned, late 19th century still-life artist is often called the American Rembrandt.
Peto built his Queen Anne style house and studio at 102 Cedar St. in Island Heights in 1890. The 2 1/2 story house, with its hipped roof, dormers, tower and gables, was home for his family. The building also included a large studio at the rear of the house. There Peto surrounded himself with simple, utilitarian objects that were models for some of his greatest paintings.
Today those same objects - the rusted horseshoe, musical instruments, lard oil lamp, umbrella, delicate china pitcher with matching cup and saucer, along with mugs and pipes - all adorn the walls and rafters of the Peto Studio so lovingly maintained by his granddaughter, Joy Smiley.
John Peto attended art school in Philadelphia in the mid 1880's. He needed to supplement his income, so he came to Island Heights after 1887 to play his coronet at the Camp Meetings, held at the meeting place Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker created for his employees to spend vacations. Wanamaker Hall still stands in Island Heights, near the Municipal complex.
Island Heights was drawing big crowds of Philadelphians on the Long Branch and Philadelphia Railroad, which came to the new resort. A railroad spur, which crossed the river from Pine Beach, dropped off passengers on the north side of the river. After discharging its passengers, the train backed up across the river to the south shore,.
With his artistic eye, Peto found the quiet scenic Island Heights an ideal place in which to create his art. He spent the rest of his life in Island Heights, painting still life canvas after canvas.
During his life and throughout the first half of this century Peto was relatively unknown in the art world. For years his work was labeled as an imitation of the paintings of William Michael Harnett, a noted Victorian still life artist who was a fellow art student of Peto's in Philadelphia who forged his name on Peto's work.
Peto was one of the masters of "rack" paintings, which juxtaposed unrelated simple objects, such as postcards, torn theater or railroad tickets, portraits and tattered newspaper clippings. These commonplace and discarded motifs became the trademark of the American trompe de l'oeil school of painting during the period between 1870 and 1900.
The National Gallery in Washington, DC, in its 1983 series of exhibitions devoted to significant American artists, presented a one-man show of the works of John F. Peto. The exhibition entitled, "Important Information Inside: The Still Life Paintings of John F. Peto," rain for five months in the National Gallery, the first comprehensive show in nearly 30 years honoring this late 19th century illustrative artist .
Island Heights became a mecca for artists. Its bluffs, the boats on the river, the stately Victorian homes, the yacht club and the small camp meeting houses have provided artists with countless subjects to splash onto a canvas.
"The Studio, " Peto's gallery and museum, is open to the public by appointment only, through Joy Smiley. There is a donation requested. Joy Smiley also accommodates guests for bed and breakfast.
Written by Pauline S. Miller, May 1, 2000, reprinted with her permission.