Edward Penfield Biography

One of the best of our native talents, Penfield is well-known for the decade 1891-1901, during which he was the art director of Harper's. For five of the ten years he produced posters for each month's issue of the then popular magazine. His drawings are deceptively simple, with flat colour and clear lines, but they always manage to convey class and refinement. And there's quite often a gentle touch of humour or irony, refreshing and frivolous. Penfield's posters are models of effective composition and economy of expression  (Jack Rennert, PAI-XXVII, 555)

When his tenure at Harper's came to an end, Penfield was free to travel, and his experiences are preserved in two books published by Scribner's, Holland Sketches (1907) and Spanish Sketches (1911), in which his graphic sense blossomed in a wealth of detail. The critic Royal Cortissoz commented: "When he made [these], he entered thoroughly into the spirit of his themes and did some of his best work... He was never the technical virtuoso alone. Humanity was always breaking into his world."   - Frederic B. Taraba

"We are a bit tired of the very serious nowadays, and a little frivolity is refreshing; and yet frivolity to be successful must be most thoroughly studied." So wrote EDWARD PENFIELD near the outset of his highly influential career as an illustrator, art editor, and poster artist, a career guided by keen observation, a cosmopolitan sensibility, and a simplicity that belied his meticulously crafted efforts.

In looking at the work of Penfield today, we find less of what strikes us as frivolous and more of a keen sense of design and composition. The Art Center Bulletin of April 1925 remembered his contribution to illustrative art this way: "To everything he produced Penfield brought his great gifts of design and draftsmanship, a wonderful sincerity that never faltered, and a beautiful humbleness of spirit." As early as 1894, just a year and a half after Penfield began a series of monthly images for Harper's , his work was heralded by Publisher's Weekly: "The advertising poster has within recent years actually soared into the regions of art." Penfield is also credited with bringing abstraction to commercial art through his boldly simplified shapes. This and other stylistic trademarks resulted from a distillation of a number of influences, including the compositional precepts and casual poses found in Japanese prints, the hand-craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts movement, the impressionistic approach of Parisian poster-making, and British poise and directness.