Arts Everyday Living: The Art of Food–An 1890s Breakfast in America & a Bit of Forgery Too

John Frederick Peto, Breakfast, c. 1890s, oil on academy board, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Title: Breakfast

Artist: John Frederick Peto (1854-1907)


It’s breakfast time circa 1890. Before cold cereal became an essential part of millions of Americans’ morning meal, starting around the early 20th century and continuing today. Anyone like to try a biscuit or two, golden in hue? Or a sip from a delicately rendered china cup–would you like coffee or tea?

Peto, who lived first in Philadelphia and then the New Jersey shore,, specialized in trompe l’oeil still life, following in the artistic footsteps of William M. Harnett (1848-1892) who enjoyed considerable popularity in the contemporary art market. The similarity between these two painters, in subject matter and approach, was so close that forgers later signed Harnett’s name to Peto’s works. According to the National Gallery of Art, where BREAKFAST currently hangs still bearing the name Harnett, this trickery wasn’t discovered until 1949. As a result, Peto’s artistic reputation was considerably enhanced over the years so that now he is recognized as a major figure in the still life genre.

But what does trompe l’oeil mean? It means literally “trick of the eye,” or deceiving the viewer into perceiving a two-dimensional painted object as three dimensional. Just google: William M. Harnett’s THE ARTIST’S LETTER RACK, 1879, Metropolitan Museum of Art and compare it to John Peto’s, OLD TIME LETTER RACK, 1894, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.





In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

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