John Frederick Peto (American, 1854–1907)
Still Life with Pitcher, Candle, and Books, ca. 1900
Oil on canvas
22 ¼ x 30 ¼ in. (56.5 x 76.8 cm)

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In this nocturnally-toned and extremely life-like picture, Peto returns to his favored allegorical subject of books in various states of disarray and decay. In both subject and treatment, the artist refers more explicitly to the tradition of 17th-century Dutch vanitas painting (moralizing pictures meant to comment upon the fleetingness of life) than he does in his earlier, more open-ended, vernacular works. A snuffed candle tilts to one side, leaning tenuously against a book, while a pipe and spent matches barely find space at the left edge of the table. A dull grey pitcher may or may not hold anything of substance. One book stands and catches a ray of direct light, only to reveal its peeling, wordless spine; the back cover of another thick and stubby volume–literally and figuratively–hangs by a thread. The Industrial Revolution was well underway when Peto painted this scene; productivity and factory manufacture had taken the place of handicrafts in American life. Neglected objects cast the viewer’s attention upon the remnants of a bygone past left behind in the wake of progress.

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