"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 (1866-1925) 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.
Although his work is most often associated with the posters he created for Harper's Monthly, he also illustrated covers and interiors for other prominent publications including Collier's, Life, Ladies' Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, Scribner's and Metropolitan Magazine. In addition, the master's style was readily adaptable to use in advertising as evidenced by his work for Arrow, Kodak, and Pierce Arrow Automobiles as well as numerous calendar publishers.
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