ON VIEW IN THE SUE ANN AND JOHN L. WEINBERG GALLERIES
December 11, 2013 through c. mid-March 2014
Edward Penfield’s advertising posters for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine have become his most recognized works. Their popularity flourished during the so-called Poster Craze of the 1890s, when boldly-designed colorful posters that advertised publications, merchandise, and public events were considered collectible works of art. To meet the demand, publishers often sold them—sometimes without their advertising lines—both directly and through print dealers. The press of the period printed lively discussions of poster art; books about posters proliferated; museums began to form poster collections; galleries exhibited European and American poster art, including Penfield’s. The poster mania lasted until about the turn of the century, when publishers began to design magazine and book covers with a poster-like appearance, the better to attract purchasers of those more lucrative publications themselves. Commercial firms took the publishers’ place, continuing to commission advertising posters for a wide range of mass-produced commodities.
Advertising poster for Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Christmas, December 1896
In 1889, the Brooklyn-born Edward Penfield was a student at the Art Students’ League in Manhattan when a Harper’s editor saw his work in a school exhibition and offered him a position in the publisher’s art department. There, Penfield executed small spot illustrations from photographs while learning his craft under Harper’s strict deadlines. His own first published work—not yet marked by his signature style—appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1891. Penfield’s trip to Paris that year was interrupted by a summons from Harper’s to come home and take leadership of their art department. He would oversee work not just for Harper & Bros.’ book publishing, but also for the “Big Four”—Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazar, andHarper’s Young People. Penfield held the position until 1901, personally designing almost all the Harper’s advertising posters from 1893 to 1899. In 1901, he left to pursue his own art as a free-lance illustrator.
Penfield’s original designs were in ink and watercolor. He oversaw the production of his posters, often mixing the inks and working directly on the plates to achieve textural effects. Improvements in color printing allowed for engaging images that captured a reader’s eye at a distance, especially at the newsstands that were thriving in American cities.
In speaking about his poster art, Penfield acknowledged a certain light-hearted approach, while noting that artistic skill and style remained paramount:
“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.”
With his spare and modern graphic style, featuring flat areas of bright color—partly inspired by the simplified forms of Japanese prints and of works by French artists such as Henri de Toulouse Lautrec—Penfield created a unique marketing tool for Harper and Bros. His compelling designs featured men and women clearly belonging to—or aspiring to—the magazine’s upper class readership, who could afford the 35 cents for an issue. Penfield’s recurring motif included the Harper’s name in large letters, with images of figures holding or reading the magazine. As in this Christmas poster of 1896, characters were often shown outdoors, reflecting the period’s interest in nature and physical exercise as sources of leisure and good health. This elegantly-dressed young woman seems the epitome of contemporary style and panache. Her forward tilt, emphasized by the sloping street, conveys her dynamic motion. The large muff, suggesting an expensive fur, complements the more ornate outlines of the collar and hat. Her stylish black adornments are wittily repeated on a smaller scale on the dog at left.
One critic praised Penfield this way:
“One might say poster artist, as it is through his posters that we have come to know him; yet…one prefers to speak of him simply as Edward Penfield, Artist.”
This poster is one of 26 donated to the Museum by Walker Penfield, a son of the artist.
Dr. Mary F. Holahan
Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibition Series
This Curator Corner was posted on November 26, 2013.