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 Joseph Pennell  (1857 - 1926)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/New York / United Kingdom      Known for: etching, illustration, painting and teaching

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Ad Code: 3
Joseph Pennell
from Auction House Records.
West Front of St. Paul's
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Joseph Pennell, painter, illustrator, etcher, lecturer, critic, author, teacher, was born in Pennsylvania,  the son of Philadelphia Quaker parents and briefly attended the School of Industrial Design now called the Philadelphia College of Art.  He was a pupil in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts between 1878-80, and his unusual ability in etching was early recognized by his instructor, James L. Claghorn.

In his time Pennell had "acquired no small measure of fame as a public lecturer, critic and author.  He also taught at the Art Students' League.  As an illustrator for a time he worked in New Orleans in collaboration with Cable, the novelist. 

In 1881 he went to Europe to illustrate some of the Italian writings of W. D. Howells.  There he received recognition from Philip Gilbert Hamerton who secured his services in illustrating a book on a tour along the river Seine.  "The fame of his work soon brought him all the commissions he wished," and he collaborated with Henry James, Justin McCarthy and Sir Walter Besant in illustrating the "picturesque buildings and streets of London. He also collaborated with Andrew Rensselaer in portraying "the Majesty and beauty of the English cathedrals".  He did so with his wife Elizabeth Robbins Pennell.

About his drawings an etchings one critic of the time said they are: "legion in number and must be seen to be appreciated [he completed over 1800 etchings and lithographs, executed mostly in Europe before 1917].  His etchings (he has destroyed all his early plates to prevent prints from worn-out plates finding their way into the market), run up into the hundreds and have an average excellence rarely maintained by a devotee of the needle, his Philadelphia, New Orleans, Italian, and London series, all have their own charm and excellence."

Another critic wrote: "Mr. Pennell invests every one of his drawings with rare mood.  His skies of dawn, noon , sunset, storm, and sunshine are chosen and painted with supreme skill, making pictures of high emotional value.  As an etcher Mr. Pennell is without a peer."  His style was strongly influenced by James Whistler.  Pennell was known for taking up causes and upon his return to the United States he took up a "strenuous fight against unsightly billboards.

His art was unique, peculiarly his own. His draftsmanship was legendary and one historian wrote: "the world produced few equals and no superior. With rare exception everything he has done has in an eminent degree, the quality of the artistic." (Brush & Palette 12:81)

He did a famous series of twenty-three lithographs of the Panama Canal that gained him much notoriety, and the Italian government has purchases for the Uffizi Gallery the originals. They also purchased his lithographs of the Grand Canyon and the Yosemite that he did while traveling in the American West in 1912 and 1915.

Pennell also did scenes of San Francisco during those trips.  That was the first time lithographs were acquired for the Uffizi and conferred the distinction of the "talented American Artist." He also did lithographs for the United States and Great Britain during the war that were "high class propaganda-to stir the war spirit and to stimulate national pride."

He won numerous awards for his work including: 1st class gold medal, Paris Expo., 1900; Dresden, 1902; Grand Prize, St. Louis Expo., 1904; gold medal, Liege, 1905; Grand Prix, Milan, 1906; Barcelona, 1907; Brussels, 1910; Diplome d'Honneur, Amsterdam, 1912; 2 medals, London, 1913; Florence,1914; Commemorative medal, Florence, 1915 and others.

Joseph Pennell  was elected an Associate of the National Academy in 1907, and an Academician in 1909.

Pennell was a member of the New York Etching Club and author of "Lithography and Lithographers, 1900; The Authorized Life of J. McN. Whistler (with Mrs. Pennell, 1910; and  Pictures of War Work in America, 1918.  He also illustrated a great number of books and was a contributor to the leading magazines of his day.

He passed away April 23rd, 1926.

Blake Benton Fine Art

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Joseph Pennell became best known for his illustrations and etchings, a process he began in the late 1870s.  He completed over 1800 etchings and lithographs, executed mostly in Europe before 1917.   His style was strongly influenced by James Whistler, and his technique was influenced by drawings of Charles Reinhardt.  He also wrote and illustrated nearly a hundred books including a biography of Whistler.

Pennell was the son of Philadelphia Quaker parents and briefly attended the School of Industrial Design, now the Philadelphia College of Art.  Between 1878 and 1880, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia where his instructor, James Claghorn recognized and encouraged Pennell's etching talent.

In 1881, he went to Europe to meet with William Dean Howells, American writer, about illustrating some of Howells' Italian writings.  On this trip, he also made other connections that led to commissions in London and resulted in over 1800 etchings and lithographs.  He destroyed most of these plates as well as those from future trips dating to 1917 to prevent their being copied and publicly distributed.

From January 1882, he was in New Orleans for four months doing illustrations of Louisiana for Century Magazine and for a book by George Washington Cable, The Creoles of Louisiana (1885). 

From 1884 to 1917, Pennell lived primarily in Europe.  There he made scenery prints in many parts of the Continent, working in a variety of graphic media.  He also returned to America long enough to travel in the American West, and in 1912 and 1915, did scenes of San Francisco, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, which along with twenty-three lithographs he did of the Panama Canal were purchased by the Italian government are in the Uffizi Gallery.

Among Pennell's recognitions are the First Class Gold Medal in the Paris Expo in 1900; Grand Prize in 1904 at the St. Louis Expo in 1904; Milan Grand Prize in 1906; the Diplome d’Honneur in Amsterdam in 1912; and the French Commemorative Medal in 1915.

"Pennell was elected an Associate of the National Academy in 1907 and an Academician in 1909, and was a member of the New York Etching Club


Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
John Mahe, Encyclopedia of New Orleans Artists, 1718-1918
International Fine Print Dealers Association,
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Compiled by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Philadelphia, PA, Pennell studied at the PAFA.  He then traveled extensively on assignments as a writer-illustrator and spent many years in London.  While in San Francisco in 1912, he produced a volume of etchings, drawings, and lithographs which he exhibited at Vickery, Atkins & Torrey.  He returned again in 1915 for the PPIE where he was a member of the Int'l Jury of Awards.  He died in Brooklyn, NY on April 23, 1926. 

Member:  NA (1909). 

Exh:  Paris Expo, 1900 (gold medal); Dresden, 1902 (Grand Prix); Louisiana Purchase Expo (St Louis), 1904; Liege, 1905 (gold medal); Milan, 1906 (Grand Prix); MM, 1926 (memorial).  In:  Library of Congress; Mead Art Gallery (Amherst College); Univ. of Michigan Museum; Museum of New Mexico; Akron Art Inst.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
AAA 1900-25; WWA 1918; Ben; NY Times  and SF Examiner, 4-24-1926 (obits).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Childs Gallery:
The following information is an excerpt from a letter of D. Roger Howlett, President of Childs Gallery in Boston, about the discrepancy of birth dates given for Joseph Pennell (1857 and 1860).

The response is supported by information from the authoritatative book about the artist, The Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell, pp. 7-8 by Elizabeth Robins Pennell.

"E. R. Pennell fully discusses the problem as follows:"

"By 1857 that fireside was in a characteristic little two story house—red brick white shutters, white marble steps—in South 9th Street, Number 183 changed to Number 603, near Shippen, and there on the Fourth of July, Joseph Pennell was born.  He himself was in doubt as to the exact date of his birth.  It was registered in the Orange Street Meetinghouse, for he was a birthright member, and the Meetinghouse burnt down long before he began to write his Adventures of an Illustrator.   At home his birthday and his country’s had been celebrated together and he therefore felt justified in continuing to celebrate his on the Fourth of July, while 1860, judging from his earliest adventures, he thought must be the year.  What he did not know was that the Orange Street Meeting had been merged with the Fourth and Arch Street Meeting and that to this older Meetinghouse, before the fire, all records had been removed from Orange Street, among them the birth record of Joseph Pennell.  This gives the date 7-4-1857, which, in looking through old family papers, I found confirmed in a letter from Larkin Pennell to “My Dear Sister”, dated Seventh Month, fifth, 1857: ‘I am glad to inform you that Rebecca has a nice little babe, a son…it took place yesterday about 3 o’clock P.M. so that we have again celebrated the fourth.' "

"On July 7, 1857, E. R. Pennell reports that Larkin Pennell wrote: 'We have named him Joseph after my father.' "

"It would appear that the matter is clear that Joseph Pennell was born July 4, 1857, but that he used July 4, 1860 most, if not all of his life."

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Joseph Pennell is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915

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