(1866-1925) American Illustrator and Designer
Of Penfield, Walt Reed wrote: “A precocious talent, [Penfield] 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…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.”
Penfield was plainly indebted to Parisian poster design, specifically Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen, as well as the Beggarstaffs (the British design team of William Nicholson and James Pryde, active between 1894 and 1899). Penfield invited Nicholson to the States and gave him space to work at Harper’s.
As a general matter, European poster design in the 1890s was descendant from innovations in lithography (see Chéret), the diffuse but unmistakable impact of Japonisme, or the radical flatness of Japanese u-kioye prints, and above all the shockingly frank flat color and dramatic scale made possible by industrial image production in the service of advertising. These were new phenomena, and the 1890s in particular stand out as an epochal period. Penfield’s work was more minimal in spirit than French Art Nouveau and its botanical flourishes, or the German magazine Die Jugend (Youth), launched 1896 in Munich.
Reed’s biographical sketch continues: “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), [Penfield] struck out on his own. His first freelance 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. [A] similar project [in 1911, took him to] Spain, and his Spanish Sketches were equally successful.”
Penfield later contributed covers to the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and other publications. He produced calendars by the fistful, and contributed poster work to the American World War I propaganda effort, organized by the Society of Illustrators. He served as president of the Society from 1921-22.
Walt Reed’s text, written for the Society of Illustrators page devoted to Penfield’s posthumous (1998) induction into the SOI Hall of Fame, is available here.