John Frederick Peto (American, 1854–1907)
Job Lot Cheap, 1892
Oil on canvas
29 ⅝ x 39 ¾ in. (75.2 x 101 cm)

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Like William M. Harnett, his friend and former classmate at the Pennsylvania Academy, Philadelphian John Frederick Peto was a master still life painter, able to evoke depth and a range of materiality, from worn wooden surfaces and rusty hinges to frosted panes, remnants of long-gone labels, well-handled marbleized book bindings, and dog-eared pages of books. In this painting, Peto represents a bunch of books arranged helter-skelter in a cabinet. The range of unrelated volumes demonstrates the booksellers’ practice of gathering random unsold titles and offering the entire group (the “job lot”) at a discounted price (“cheap”). Peto’s close-up view provides a telling and very realistic record of the cast-offs of commerce at the turn of the century. At the same time, the artist stages a fascinatingly complex, humorous, and extremely modern interplay between notions of permanence and impermanence, culture and commerce, fragment and whole.

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