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Biography of Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

Understanding publishing in America in the 1890s is incomplete without understanding the role of posters. Visual images became the means by which rival publishers attempted to rivet the attention of their readers. This trend began with Edward Penfield's monthly posters for Harper's.

Born in 1866 in Brooklyn New York, Edward Penfield studied at the Art Students League. He was heavily influenced by the European poster artists, Toulouse-Lautrec and Steinlen, and focused his career on commercial art. As an art director for Harper's Magazine in 1893, Penfield was selected to spearhead the company's new idea: using illustration on its monthly placards.

Penfield drew the placards for Harpers for six years, and his designs evolved into wonderfully bold graphic statements. Often touted for his aloof subjects, Penfield portrayed wealthy turn-of-the-century Americans reading the magazine. Yet there is also warmth in his characters, perhaps as a result of his humorous takes on drawing or use of animal images. Upon completing his stint with Harpers in 1900, Penfield became active as a book and magazine illustrator for various companies. His work appeared in Collier's Magazine, Scribners and Harper's Magazine. He also maintained a successful career as a mural artist. President of the Society of Illustrators (1921-22), Penfield died in Beacon New York in 1925.

Penfield's distinct style set the tone for the golden age of the American poster. Simple and elegant, synthesizing the best elements of the domestic and the international, Penfield's posters were the standard against which other publishers had to compete.