Artist to Know: Edward Penfield
Rago and Toomey & Co. to Offer Over 100 Works by American Illustrator
A significant figure in the history of poster and graphic design, Edward Penfield (1866 – 1925) was celebrated for his bold, abstract posters. A precocious talent, Penfield drew inspiration from Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and early Egyptian sarcophagi paintings. He is often referred to as the father of the American poster movement. He worked for the prestigious Harper’s Magazine from 1891 to 1900 and created distinctive graphic images.
Over 100 works dedicated to Edward Penfield: American Illustrator will come to auction with Rago and Toomey & Co. on May 18, 2023. Bidding begins at 2:00 PM EDT. Before the auction starts, get to know Edward Penfield and his art.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, Penfield was the son of Josiah B. Penfield and Ellen Lock Moore. He was the third of five children. His mother Ellen was a homemaker and his father Josiah was a bookkeeper and flour merchant. Reportedly, the artist’s health wasn’t strong in his childhood and youth. As a young child, he was influenced by his Uncle Henry Lewis Penfield (1825 – 1901), who owned a ‘bureau of engraving,’ or studio, in New York City.
Penfield received his elementary education in Brooklyn. At 23, he studied under George de Forest Brush at the Art Students League of New York. Brush, an American figurative artist, was known for portraying romantic scenes of Native American life. Penfield joined the publishing house Harper and Brothers at the age of 25 as a staff artist and editor. Penfield quickly set his own style of basic figures with bold outlines devoid of irrelevant detailing. After his promotion to artistic director, Penfield created his first lithograph poster advertising for Harper’s Magazine in 1893. The poster shows a man in a green coat engrossed in reading as he gets wet from rain. It was a runaway success, and he produced posters advertising each successive issue of the magazine for the next seven years.
“It was unlike anything seen in the land before. It was a poster which forced itself upon one: in design and colour it was striking, and yet it was supremely simple throughout,” reported Herbert Stone in an article for The Chap-Book on Penfield’s first poster. “The poster was distinctly successful; it was theoretically as well as practically good. The artist had attained his ends by the suppression of details: there were no un-necessary lines,” Stone added. Penfield also made cover designs and advertisements for books published by Harper’s.
A key figure in American Art Nouveau poster art, Penfield’s works were celebrated for their dynamic abstraction and had occasional comical touch. He unabashedly experimented with avant-garde styles. Following his self-retirement from Harper & Brothers, Penfield undertook freelance illustration assignments for publications such as Collier’s, Life, The Saturday Evening Post, The Country Gentleman, Scribner’s, Literary Digest, and Metropolitan Magazine. He later went on to teach students at the Art Students League. Penfield also received commissions to travel to Spain and Holland. He was one of the founding members of the New Rochelle Art Association (NRAA) set up in 1912. Edward Penfield died in 1925 at the age of 58 owing to health complications from a previous spinal injury.
Numerous museums and art galleries have featured Penfield’s works. Prices for Penfield’s charming posters at auction have held steady over the last few decades. Poster Auctions International Inc. regularly features work by Penfield and other famous illustrators. In 2019, the auction house sold one of his three spectacular bicycle posters rendered in large format. Titled Orient Cycles, the colorful poster dating back to 1895 fetched USD 14,000. Similarly, another Penfield poster, Ride a Stearns and Be Content, from 1896 achieved $12,000.
Edward Penfield’s compositions in the upcoming sale span from his early days at Harper’s, during his tenure as art director, and to his freelance assignments for publishers. Sourced directly from the artist’s estate, the works are executed in several mediums, including lithographs and posters, watercolor, gouache, oil paintings, ink, graphite, charcoal illustrations, and ephemera.
The full selection of works featured in Edward Penfield: American Illustrator will be on view from May 11 to 18 at Rago’s showroom in New Jersey. The live auction starts at 2:00 PM EDT on May 18, 2023. For the complete auction details and to register to bid, visit Rago. The auction will be immediately preceded by Rago’s American & European Art auction, to begin at 10:00 AM EDT.
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