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Edward Penfield

Father of American Poster

Early Years


Edward Penfield (1866-1925) was the third of five children in the family of Josiah B. Penfield and Ellen Lock Moore. his father was American and his mother from England. He was of very weak health as a kid, two of his brothers died at an early age and his sister when she was only forty.


Josiah B. Penfield tried himself at several jobs, including being a book-keeper and flour merchant but the early influence on young Edward was very likely his uncle Henry Lewis Jr who was an artist-engraver working for several publishers in the neighborhood.

Edward studied at local schools in Brooklin, getting first formal artistic education at the Art Students' League in New York. He was considered as one of the most talented students in his generation, what was clearly mentioned in an article about the new generation of artists coming from the school by Horace Bradley (who had close connections with the school), one of the senior artists at Harper's Weekly.

A Decade at Harper's

Harper's gave the first regular job to Edward Penfield in times with rapid changes in printing technology where artists still draw directly to woodblocks and engravers turned them into printing plates. New photographic process revolutionary changed the process - printing became more faithful to artists' creations, fewer man-hours were needed, price of production of printing plates dropped for almost 90 percent, the old generation of creators slowly made room to new ones.


Edward Penfield's monthly posters for Harper's


Monthly posters done for different Harper's editions are collectible items today. As you can see he loved to use only a few colors, a simple and effective design, emphasized outlines, just like he wrote in his articles about posters - an artist who creates them, should study a lot and make several drafts before his work is done but the public should get a message in a second. It the audience needs time for studying a poster, it's not a poster!

Talented artist survived the stormy times for Harpers', where the generations of owners changed, new editors succeeded old ones, a financial crisis took its toll, several magazines went out of business, and new techniques in art and technology became the only constant. He was promoted to the editorial position, became an art director, got married, made a few trips to Europe (which definitely inspired his books Holland Sketches in 1907 and Spanish Sketches in 1911, both published by Charles Scribner), survived the economic depression, and eventually retired from Harper's publishing house in 1901.

Collier's covers by Edward Penfield


Saturday Evening Post covers by Penfield


Good Housekeeping covers by Edward Penfield


All these covers already show highest Penfield's artistic and technical skills. We can also recognize his favorite themes: women, animals (he preferred cats and horses), and cars. Here are a few advertising posters:


Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company advertisement posters by Penfield


The Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company was established in 1865 as a company which produces household items. They added bicycles to the production in 1896 and unsuccessfully tried to construct a steam car around 1900. Their first two-cylinder motor car was called Arrow and in next year an advanced luxury model - Great Arrow. They were pretty successful at the beginning, even won a few races, and became sort of status symbol in USA.

Several Hollywood stars had cars from this company which was known by stylish posters where characteristics of certain models were never mentioned. As we can see, Edward Penfield made quite a few of them.


Various Penfield's advertising posters


This poster advertised cars too.


This one was made for cloth manufacturer.


And this one was for food. Everybody wanted Edward Penfield.

Edward Penfield's calendars


As we can see, these calendar pages offered a decorative value only. Penfield draw them after Old Farmer's Almanac from 1843 and Beck Engraving Company used them for calendar of 1918, published in New York and Philadelphia.

Here is another example of Penfield's work, this time complete with the table:


Among his popular themes we could include sport as well. Here are a few examples:


Penfield created a whole series of posters for the most prestigious universities of the US, all related to sports.

Always in Demand

He became a freelance illustrator and designer. Great connections from a decade of work at important positions in the publishing industry gave him enough connections to keep busy right to the very end of his life. He illustrated for Ainslee's, Collier's, Country Gentlemen, Good Housekeeping, Ladie's Home Journal, Outing, Saturday Evening Post, and others. His style was inspired by Art Nouveau, Japanese prints, and French contemporaries like Jules Cheret and Henry Toulouse-Lautrec.

He also wrote an introduction to Posters in Miniature (together with some Portraits of the Artists) by Percival Pollard, published in 1896 by Robert Howard Russell. Edward Penfield lived in La Rochelle, a popular art colony in New York, was one of the founding members of New Rochelle Art Association (their main activity was organization of numerous exhibitions, the main goal to set higher educational and artistic standards in New York, and some of their shows became so popular special trains started running from New York City to La Rochelle).


Apart from working for magazines, Penfield created a huge number of posters, calendars, and book covers. He died in 1925 a few months short of being 60 years old. Today he is considered as the father of American poster.

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