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Edward Penfield (1866–1925)
Harper & Brothers (New York)
Harper's June, 1896
color lithograph
47.6 x 35.2 cm (18 3/4 x 13 7/8 in.)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, The Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund and The Sydney and Frances Lewis Endowment Fund
photograph by Wen Hwa Ts'ao
© 1998 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Edward Penfield noted, "A poster has to play to the public over the variety stage . . . to come on with a personality of its own and to remain but a few moments. We are a little tired of the very serious nowadays, and a little frivolity is refreshing."

A rising literacy rate in the nineteenth century contributed to a growing number of literary periodicals and trade journals. Edward Penfield's spare, expressive designs for Harper's magazine were meant to appeal to, and often featured, stylish men and women of the middle or upper classes. Influenced by outstanding French postermakers such as Jules Chéret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Penfield's posters have also been described as narratives or vignettes that reveal a uniquely American character.

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Biography of Edward Penfield

Edward Penfield received his training at the Art Students League in New York City. He went on to become the art director at Harper's magazine and also designed a series of monthly posters for Harper's that won enormous critical acclaim. By the turn of the century, Penfield's reputation as an important graphic designer was assured.

The Harper's posters have been characterized as the definitive graphic works of the 1890s. Penfield took full advantage of recent improvements in color printing to create works that were effective vehicles of communication and also aesthetically engaging. Less concerned with the dramatic curving lines of Art Nouveau than his contemporary Will Bradley, Penfield synthesized a number of stylistic sources in his work, including Japanese prints and those of French artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret.

After leaving Harper's in 1901, Penfield continued to be extremely active in both design and illustration. In addition to posters for other magazines including Scribner's and Collier's, he executed illustrations and covers for many books and generated designs for numerous commercial concerns. Together with Will Bradley, Penfield was instrumental in creating the rich fabric of American graphic design work in the 1890s.

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