(1866 – 1925)
America has produced many excellent poster artists, but Edward Penfield must surely be placed at the top of the list. A precocious talent, he was still a student at the Art Students League under the tutelage of George deForest Brush when his work in a school exhibition was seen by the art editor of Harper’s magazine. Penfield was offered a staff job in the art department and thrived on the on-the-job training. When a poster deadline came due, Penfield volunteered to fill the breach and overnight produced the first of a long series of distinctive posters that made Penfield’s reputation as the father of the American Poster Movement.
Many sources can be seen in his work, certainly that of Lautrec and Steinlen in Paris, The Beggerstaff Brothers (James Pryde and William Nicholson) of England, and the Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock prints. Penfield also acknowledged the influence of the early Egyptian sarcophagi paintings. After becoming the art editor, Penfield was also a strong supporter of other artists’ work. For instance, he invited William Nicholson from England and even provided him with space to work in his Harper’s office.
However, his poster style was his own, characterized by strong shapes simplified to the barest essentials and with elements selected that were of impeccable that were of impeccable taste and draftsmanship. The simplification of detail was essential to the success of a poster which had to be immediately apprehended by a casual passerby. This same requirement applied to magazine covers as they were displayed in competition with other publications. Penfield’s cover designs were, therefore, conceived mini-posters that more than held their own on the newsstands.
After his stint with Harper’s- during which he served as art editor for Harper’s Weekly and Monthly, as well as Harper’s Bazar (1891-1901), he struck out on his own. His first free-lance assignment took him to Holland, leading to a series of articles on Dutch life, which he both wrote and illustrated. Later combined into a book, Holland Sketches, in 1907; they were a great success. This was followed in 1911 by a similar project during which he traveled throughout Spain and his Spanish Sketches were equally successful.
Upon his return to the United States, he became a regular contributor of covers to The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, the old Life magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Litary Digest, The Country Gentleman, and Metropolitan Magazine. He was also an effective designer of calendars. His annual designers for the Beck Engraving Company were prized by other artists and saved long after the calendar years had expired.
Penfield was particularly interested in early coaches and other horse-drawn vehicles and often used them as picture themes. He could draw upon his own collection of stage coaches- a one-horse shat and other vehicles, along with saddles and harness which occupied his “museum” on the ground floor under his studio.
Penfield contributed his work to further the American cause during World War I, creating many effective posters. He was also active in other public service roles through his membership in the Society of Illustrators, where he served as president; The Art Center; The Guild of Free Lance Artists; and the American Watercolor Society. He also taught at the Art Students League.
As we review Penfield’s work from the perspective of three-quarters of a century, it has a timeless quality that could be published as well today and should only look better in the future.