When Edward Penfield was hired by Harper and Brothers to create the posters for which he would become famous, he wasn't even out of art school yet. When you consider this fact for a moment, you'll immediately begin to understand the enormity of his prowess as an artist.
Although this is always a tremendous feat, can we really claim to be surprised at this when we view his artwork and see his skill for ourselves? It is a skill that shows itself plainly but also exhibits an illusion of effortlessness that betrays an unabashed confidence in his own work.
These posters, which Penfield created between 1893 and 1899, are interesting to look at in the context of that decade's poster art scene. While European artists such as Alphonse Mucha and Théophile Steinlen, who were well-established masters of the poster, created works that were ornate, flamboyant, and imaginative, Penfield's subjects were, by comparison, mundane. Let's take, for example, the above image of a young girl with a parasol, which was published in March of 1897. How very unlike the absinthe-fueled, dreamlike visions of his European counterparts! Rather than a graceful dancer surrounded by flowers, or a wood nymph, or a mystical floral arrangement, we instead see just a young girl and her parasol. Nothing more. And yet, this choice of subject matter, modest though it is, is very much in keeping with the rough-hewn American aesthetic, and its message that there is beauty in the everyday and the plain, and that anyone can, with a level head, humility, and a willingness to work, achieve greatness.
Due to the sheer volume of Harper's posters created by Penfield during this period of more than six years, I have decided to show you only the posters I personally consider his best. There are many more than what I show here, and this is by no means a definitive collection, but these are among the best I've seen. For more Harper's posters by Penfield, I highly recommend Martin S. Lindsay's scholarly online resource, which can be found at edwardpenfield.com.
Before we go any further, I invite you to browse our collection of art prints by Edward Penfield, which are available for purchase here.
August, 1899 (published in July)
Christmas, 1897 (published in November)
July, 1897 (published in June)
May, 1898 (published in April)
April, 1897 (published in March)
November, 1897 (published in October)
November, 1895 (published in October)
February, 1895 (published in January)
October, 1897 (published in September)
February, 1894 (published in January)