Edward Penfield: A Biography

By Martin S. Lindsay

Early Days

Edward Penfield was born 2 Jun 1866 a post-war ‘baby boomer’ in Brooklyn, New York to Ellen Lock Moore and Josiah B. Penfield. Ellen was a native of England, and both Edward’s father and grandfather, Henry Lewis Penfield, came from Rye, New York; their forbearers from Fairfield, CT. Josiah worked as a book-keeper in his youth, went on to become a flour merchant and later, a commission merchant.

Edward was the third of five children. Two of his brothers died young, as well as a younger sister at age 40. It has been said that even in his youth, his health was not strong. He received his elementary education in Brooklyn, was cared for by his mother, and sometimes studied at home. As he grew up, he decided to carry on in his uncle Henry’s footsteps — to be an artist.

Henry Lewis Penfield Jr was Josiah’s younger brother by five years. When Edward was three, Henry had a ‘bureau of engraving,’ or studio, in New York City just a few blocks away from Josiah’s office. Henry was an artist-engraver and supplied ‘cuts’ for the neighboring publishers. By 1872, he had moved to Kentucky and married, eventually settling in Missouri.

Edward Penfield illustration from Art Students League costume class.

So when he was in his early twenties, Edward enrolled at the Art Students’ League in New York City, where he met many fellow aspiring artists. In the fall of 1889, he attended the costume class, from which several of his pen and ink studies still survive. He also studied painting under the impressionist George de Forest Brush the next year.


In April of 1888 Henry Mills Alden, the managing editor of Harper’s Magazine, wrote to writer and pithy humorist John Kendrick Bangs. No doubt he had seen the March 15th issue of Life announcing Bangs’ retirement from its editorship.

Evidently, management—including the Harper partners—felt that the “Editor’s Drawer” had been languishing under editorship of Charles Dudley Warner, and Bangs “as a representative of the new developments in humor and satire, was summoned by the Harpers to bring about a rehabilitation.” It was a comfortable—and sentimental—decision for the Harpers, because John Kendrick was the son of the recently deceased Francis N. Bangs, a life-long friend of J. Henry Harper, prominent attorney and former legal consultant to the firm. The 26-year-old Bangs accepted the offer with relish, succeeding Warner and immediately writing for not only the Monthly, but for Harper’s Bazar as well.

At Harper and Brothers, Charles Parsons headed the art department as its ‘superintendent,’ just as he had for twenty-six years. He oversaw a staff of art editors, six-to-eight house artists, as well as managed a stable of free-lance artists as well. The ‘art room,’ as it was sometimes called, was on the second floor of the Harper building at Franklin Square, in lower Manhattan. Here, they took care of the daily planning, arranging, organizing, producing and proofing of the artwork and layouts for Harper’s Weekly, Monthly, Bazar and Harper’s Young People magazines, in addition to all of the Harper and Brothers bookwork.

It was the job of the art director to assign work to a particular art editor, who would in turn oversee the work of the free-lancer, or do the work himself. A good art director such as Parsons had an instict for pairing compatible editors with artists, thus forming long-lasting business relationships. For example, Frederick B. Schell, an artist of considerbale merit of his own, was Frederic Remington’s editor for years.

An art editor typically corresponded with a free-lance illustrator as to the direction of the artist’s work and coordinated with the engraving and proofing departments. Pages had to be arranged and set up in type so that artists might design to the proper layouts (the typesetters were located in the compositors’ rooms on the top floor). Some of the more well-known illustrators, or ‘prima donnas’ such as Howard Pyle, might be allowed to design their own page layouts.

Staff artists and engravers completed news illustrations quickly for the Weekly’s publishing deadlines, sometimes working up to eighteen hours on a single 4x5 inch woodblock. The artist inked his drawing directly upon woodblocks, which were in turn given to the engraver to work on. Artist proofs were pulled from these blocks and when approved, the blocks were set into the page layouts for proofing. Some artists were suited to the sometimes-stressful process, while others were not.

Other work for staff artists was the re-working or finishing of supplied art. In some cases if an illustrator’s original submission was deemed by the engraving department to be too difficult to reproduce, a staff artist was assigned the cleanup job: re-working, sometimes re-inking a drawing.

As time wore on and the technology of photomechanical reproduction advanced, this slow and expensive process became archaic. It was, to the ever cost-conscious Harper management, ‘a practical impossibility for publishers to continue the use of wood engravings.’ On average, the Harpers were spending $300 per page of woodblock illustration. Why keep an entire staff of engravers on site when the same — or better — results could be had for a few dollars per page with the new process? Parsons and his staff experimented with the new half-tone and photoengraving methods of reproduction, tailoring their styles accordingly. Full-page multi-block engravings would eventually be replaced with halftone reproductions, but the smaller spot illustrations still looked better as reproduced from pen and ink renderings.

Just as the Harpers’ old ways of doing business were being replaced with the new, so were their people.

Hired by Harpers

Late in 1889, the Harper brothers gave a dinner at Delmonico’s honoring Charles Parsons for his service to the house of Harper. It was known as the ‘most fashionable’ restaurant in New York at the time, and since 1876 had “been based on the south side of Twenty-sixth between fifth and Broadway in an establishment that—with its frescoed ceilings, silver chandeliers, flower-decked fountain, and French haute cuisine—realized all the fantasies of the new rich. The restaurant had been the scene of some of the grandest private entertainments of the 1870s and 1880s.” The dinner was attended by Harper partners, their writers, editors, and staff—but most of Parsons’ artists were not invited.

In April of 1890 the art department staff held a dinner of their own for Parsons, who had — after taking a twenty-percent cut in pay from the Harpers — decided to retire at the age of sixty-eight. Art editor William Patten likewise left, traveling to Paris to continue his art studies at the Academie Julian. Fifty-two-year-old editor and artist Frederick B. Schell replaced Parsons as superintendent of the art department.

Penfield took Patten's place as an art editor, and was the second-youngest to occupy the position. William Patten had beaten him by a year. Patten became an art editor for Harper at the age of twenty-three, serving from 1887 to 1890. After returning to the United States, Patten began a long association (1904-1913) with the publishing house P.F. Collier and Son, where he was instrumental in the development and publication of Charles W. Eliot's landmark Harvard Classics series.

In anticipation of the drain of capital due to the upcoming retirement of second-generation partners, Harper & Brothers sold their schoolbook division to the newly formed American Book Company for $550,000. On the 22nd of May, Fletcher Harper Jr died, and later that year Philip Harper retired, succeeded by his son James.

Although Edward Penfield was a very talented art student in 1889, there has still today been a constant misconception by historians regarding his professional standing and appointment to Harper and Brothers. Some have said that he was hired on as ‘the art director’ or ‘head of the art department’ at Harper’s; others have implied that his talents were so appreciated that the head job at Harper’s was simply handed to him, fresh out of art school.

In actuality, an associate art editor at Harper and Brothers saw his work at an exhibition and suggested to art director Schell that he hire Penfield as a staff illustrator. On this recommendation Penfield was hired by the Harpers. He got a crack at the big time — or at least part-time — as an art editor and illustrator until he finished his coursework at the Art Students League.

November of 1890 saw the first public exhibit of European posters in America. The Grolier Exhibit generated much interest in European poster artists, and at the same time sparked a debate on the finer qualities of European art over American. Sponsored by the Grolier Club in NYC, the exhibit included one hundred posters and book covers, mostly French. Half of the works were by Jules Chéret and Eugene Grasset (forty-five by Chéret alone). Only seven were by American artists.

These American posters, wrote Roberta Wong, “were highly realistic, since the draughtsmen who transferred the artists’ drawings onto the lithographic stone usually achieved a precision and a finish that rivalled the photograph and permitted little individuality of style.”

Audiences were impressed by “the colorful placards of Chéret and Grasset which outshown the few realistic posters by American lithographers, particularly [those of] Matt Morgan.”

“American posters show little personal impulsion; all are good,” a critic for The Art Amateur reviewed, “but it is impossible to tell Matt Morgan’s work from W.J. Morgan’s, or the latter from Thomas’s and Wylie’s...”

Penfield’s first published work appears in Harper’s Weekly, 1891. He started out on staff under the guidance of art director Frederick B. Schell, art editor Horace J. Bradley and art editor Arthur B. Turnure, cleaning up and inking field artists’ sketches, executing small spot illustrations from photos, and learning his craft under the strict weekly deadlines of the paper. His first signed work in Harper’s Monthly appears in an article by Dr John C. Van Dyke about the Art Students League, which appeared in the October, 1891 issue. Horace Bradley had previously been head of the Art Students League, and promoted it as a source of fresh new talent.

No wonder Schell took note of this 24-year-old. The article was illustrated with drawings by the League’s students and instructors, and Penfield’s bold, simplified line drawing of the new League building stands out from the rest.

Toward the end of the year, J. Henry Harper asked Richard Harding Davis, the “well-connected young man who was the literary darling of the moment,” to become managing editor of Harper’s Weekly with the hope he could infuse some youthful interests into an “old man’s newspaper.” The up-and-coming Davis, who of late had just published the popular Gallegher, turned down another offer from S.S. McClure, deciding instead to work for the more prestigious house of Harper. He took over the duties of interim editor John Foord, who left Davis with a six-month backlog of manuscripts. Foord went on to a position as a representative of New York for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, set to open in 1893.

Davis said he wanted to “wake up the sleepers of Franklin Square with a great big bang.” So he hired new writers, went to his friends, and sought “young men to write on topics that interested young men.”

At this time, Penfield executed ink and watercolor wash illustrations in a style more akin to the older generation from Harper and Brothers, such as W.T. Smedley, W.A. Rogers, Thor de Thulstrep, Rufus Zogbaum and E.A. Abbey. Although he was gaining valuable on-the-job experience and simplifying his style, Penfield’s trademark linework and use of broad tonal areas is not yet apparent in his sketches.

In 1892, Penfield went to Europe. When in Paris, he looked up George de Forest Brush, his mentor and teacher from the Art Students’ League. The painter lived in Paris with his family, “staying in a house owned by the Montigny family at number 8, Rue Boissonade, in the neighborhood of the Lion Belfour.”

Any bohemian vacation time Penfield intended was most certainly cut short by his employers. The young Penfield — like Davis and Bangs before him — had been summoned by the Harpers to guide their publications toward the new age. He was to return to New York immediately to head up their art department in place of Frederick Schell. It was a position which included work not only for Harper & Brother’s book publishing, but also for the ‘Big Four’ — their magazines Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazar and Harper’s Young People.

Early in 1893, Penfield designed the first of his illustrative Harpers posters. Said to have been quickly executed overnight for a presentation the next day, his simple design was unlike any other American advertising poster up until then. His designs, wrote illustrator Walt Reed, “made Penfield’s reputation as the father of the American Poster Movement.”

“It was only an experiment and was done long before I ever heard of Lautrec or Steinlen as poster designers,” wrote Penfield to New York journalist. “To be sure I was familiar with Steinlen, but only as a caricaturist. Later on, Richard Harding Davis asked me to make a poster for his book ‘Our English Cousins’, and showed me about a dozen French Posters, which were the first I had seen.”

1 May 1893. World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opened with much publicty. The fair ran for six months, through Oct 1893. Four days later the stock market plunged, starting the ‘Panic of ’93.’ On 27 June 1893 the stock market crashed, the resulting economic depression caused some 500 banks and 15,000 businesses to fail within the year. Economy does not improve until 1897.

In 1894 Joseph W. Harper retired from Harper & Brothers, succeeded by his son Henry Sleeper Harper. That year, the design, layout, and editorial focus of Harper’s Young People were revised in an effort to stop its declining circulation. The publication’s name was changed to Harper’s Round Table.

Even with all of their efforts to prevent it, from 1894 through 1896, revenues from Harper’s periodicals steadily declined with the depression.

To stay in business, Harper & Brothers terminated the Harper partnership and reorganized as a stock company on 16 Nov 1896. The deal was steered by one-time Harper editor William Mackay Laffan, now a director of the company, and publisher of the New York Sun. He had been J.P. Morgan’s advisor on art, and went to Morgan for help. The partnership was reorganized as a corporation issuing $2 million in stock and $3 million in bonds. Over the next three years, Harper & Brothers borrowed $850,000 from J.P. Morgan & Company.

On Tuesday 27 Apr 1897, Edward Penfield and Jennie Walker were married at the West End Collegiate Church, by the Rev. Henry Evertson Cobb. Edward’s older brother William was his best man, and Jennie's sister Laura was her maid of honor. The ceremony was followed by a small reception at the home of the bride's parents, on West Seventy Seventh Street, NYC. Jennie Judd Walker (7 Feb 1868 - 14 Jul 1950), daughter of Major Charles Ashbel Walker (23 Jun 1843 - 27 May 1936), a Civil War veteran and treasurer for the Delaware and Hudson Company railroad, and Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Jones (abt 1843 - 7 Feb 1914). Major Walker had served in the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry, better known as “Duryée’s Zouaves.” After the war, he was honorably discharged with the rank of brevet Major, and took the position of clerk to the Treasurer of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad. The very next day, they sailed for Europe. The newlyweds — accompanied by Mjr Walker — honeymooned in England, Europe and probably Holland. Penfield’s July 1897 Harper’s poster is signed “London.”

Edward and Jennie lived with the Walkers in Manhattan, and later in a large house the Walkers built at 185 Jackson Avenue in Pelham Manor, New York. Penfield made a small studio in an upper floor of the house.

Trouble in the House of Harper

Harper & Brothers found themselves in 1899 unable to meet interest payments on their loans from J.P. Morgan, who—at Laffan’s suggestion—named S.S. McClure to reorganize the Harper & Brothers business. In return for $692,000 payable over ten years, McClure would receive a majority ownership of the company stock.

In June, Doubleday & McClure officially took over Harper & Brothers, naming John Finley as editor of the ailing Harper’s Weekly.

27 Oct 1899. Due to dwindling subscriptions and mounting monthly losses, Harper’s Round Table was discontinued, and its editor Albert Lee transferred to one of the McClure publications. Margaret E. Sangster, who had for years conducted the Bazar, was likewise ‘transferred,’ and J.H. Sears was named as her replacement. By the end of the month, McClure canceled his agreement with Harpers. He could not raise the needed capital to “swing the deal.” George B. M. Harvey, editor and owner of the North American Review, was asked to take his place.

John W. Harper denied rumors from the press that Henry Mills Alden, the highly respected editor of Harper’s Magazine, was to ‘retire,’ and that J.P. Morgan was ‘financially interested’ in the firm. He stated to the press, “we invited Col. Harvey to take this position because of his success, both in journalism and business, and later especially with The North American Review, whose circulation has doubled since he took charge of it in May.” It was actually J.P. Morgan who made the suggestion.

Harvey came in and audited the House of Harper. “After a thorough investigation of the condition of affairs, I became satisfied that, in order to maintain the proud position that Harper & Brothers have always occupied in the publishing world,” he told reporters, “it was absolutely essential to begin at the bottom, and first of all to establish its finances upon a sound and durable basis.”

At the meeting of the board of directors on 16 Nov 1899, George Harvey presented his case to the Harpers, and was given the go-ahead for reorganization.

Harvey trimmed expenses by over $100,000 while Harper & Brothers partners scrambled to cover interest payments. He sold Harper’s college textbooks and scholarly reference works to the American Book Company for $125,000. He axed magazines, cut salaries, terminated jobs, and no longer was the art department to commission expensive artists. Use the new, eager—and cheaper—illustrators.

Tuesday, 28 Nov 1899

Shortly after the beginning of their workday, word went around the thousand or so Harpers employees that ‘something unusual had happened.’ On the glass entrance doors of the Pearl Street building was pasted a legal notice.


All persons will please take notice that the State Trust Company, as trustee under the first mortgage made by the corporation of Harper & Brothers to the State Trust Company as trustee, dated November 16, 1896, and duly recorded in the office of the Register of the City and County of New York, in Liber 37 of Mortgages, Pages 328-360, Section 1, on Nov. 1, 1896, and upon the same day duly filed in said office as a chattel mortgage, (No. 52,514.) in pursuance of the provisions of Section 2 of Article III. of said mortgage, has entered into and open all and every part of the property and premises, lands, rights, interests, and franchises conveyed or intended to be conveyed by said mortgage, and each and every part thereof, including the publications and periodicals known as Harper’s Magazine, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazar, and Harper’s Round Table, and that from this date and until further notice neither the corporation of Harper & Brothers nor its agents or servants will have or will exercise any power to use, operate, manage, or control said mortgaged property or premises, or to conduct the business thereof.

The State Trust Company has appointed Mr. G.B.M. Harvey to be its agent in the possession, operation, management, and control of the said property, premises, and business, and until further notice he will be respected accordingly. By order of the State Trust Company;


Attest: H.M. FRANCIS, Secretary

Soon, there gathered round a large crowd, trying to glean the notice’s real meaning. Was Harper & Brothers to be shut down? Were there to be massive layoffs? Near panic ensued until management explained that the notice did not necessarily mean the end of the firm, but in actuality, ‘business as usual.’

Rather than accept further loans from J.P. Morgan, Harper & Brothers officially declared bankruptcy on 4 Dec 1899, going into receivership under the State Trust Company, trustee. Later that month Harvey discontinued publishing Literature, and in an effort to save the publication, assigned John Kendrick Bangs as editor of Harper’s Weekly.

By the turn of the Century, the Harpers had cut expenses and jobs, gone bankrupt, discontinued Harper’s Round Table, and reorganized as a corporation. George B.M. Harvey, the new president of the corporation, was trying to bring ‘life back into the corpse,’ and so drastically cut production expenses for each of the publications. Penfield was no longer allowed to commission the expensive artists. “As to Harpers,” wrote Frederic Remington, “they are hard up and employ cheap men. Also Harvey wants new men. New and cheap lets you out along with the other old men.”

By September 1900, Bangs and Harvey had a falling out, and Bangs was fired. Harvey himself then took over as editor of Harper’s Weekly, an act not entirely unexpected by many.

1 Oct 1900. Harper & Brothers issued $2,000,000 in bonds, a portion went to creditors as security. Harvey reduced their debt to $1 million. He fired most of the compositors, and installed Linotype machines.

Penfield served these publications for ten years, as art director, manager, editor and as artist, until he retired in 1901 to devote his entire time to illustrating. But he was driven to it, if not directly, then indirectly by his loyalty to fellow artists and writers ‘dropped’ by the Harpers.


Through the connections he’d made while working for the Harpers, he immediately began illustrating for Outing, Scribner’s, Collier’s and Saturday Evening Post.

To be continued...

Copyright © 1999-2024 Martin S. Lindsay. All rights reserved. This is a preliminary draft only, not for publication. All material herein is subject to correction. For more info, contact author. Rev 20150812.