Mary Jane was the daughter of Rubens Peale and Eliza Burd Patterson Peale. She was born in New York in 1827 during the time Rubens was managing the Peale familys New York museum. In 1841, the family settled in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and Mary Jane went on to become a portrait and still life painter, studying with her uncle as well as Thomas Sully and James Reid Lambdin.
Later in her career she also studied with Thomas Eakins, taking his life class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1855, Mary Jane gave her father Reubens lessons and stimulated him to try his hand at painting still-lifes, landscapes and scenes featuring game birds in their natural habitat. Mary Jane occasionally finished or retouched areas of his works, and after his death in 1865 she completed many of the paintings that remained unfinished. She was active as both a fruit and floral painter, and was greatly inspired by the still lifes of her great uncle James Peale. During her lifetime she also copied works by James, as well as paintings by the Old Masters Rembrandt and Raphael.
"Still Life with Fruit" dates from 1862. Mary Jane carefully inscribed on the back of this work that it was painted from nature. The picture recalls still lifes by James Peale in which he carefully and calculatedly arranged objects in separate tiers, spread them evenly across the picture plane, divided the composition into equal areas of light and shadow, and chose to emphasize globular forms. Like James, Mary Jane was interested in the element of change and transformation, and here blemishes and age spots appear upon pieces of fruit, and grape leaves have turned color. She records the imperfections of the fruit, thereby making them seem more natural and accessible to the viewer. According to Cheryl Leibold, Archivist of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, "Still Life with Fruit" was probably brought in to augment the exhibition of works hanging on the walls [of the Academy] before and after the Annual [exhibition of 1882] (E-mail from Cheryl Leibold to Bruce Weber, June 29, 2000).