PENFIELD’S Harper’s posters have been called “the definitive graphic works of the 1890s” by the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum.
Let that sink in for a minute. In France, at around the same time, scenes like these greeted the outdoor ad-space:
Meanwhile, Penfield, the definitive American graphic artist of the 1890s, gives us: a gentleman on a bicycle. A couple among carriages. A man sitting pensively. Not the sorts of things you’d expect would attract attention.
You are impatient. Stay for a moment.
Because Penfield’s entire subject is attention. The value of stillness. Being alert to the small, meaningful detail. The virtue of concentration, whether at work or play. The great significance of a small act. The inexplicably powerful emotion provoked by the subtlest gesture. Look closer, and you’ll find that Penfield is a master at all of this.
The way Penfield draws faces is key. From afar, or at a casual glance, all of his figures look generic, stock, impassive, without affect. But look! Here in No. 543 (Harper’s / May 1894) there is a slight, oh very slight, hint of a smile upon the woman’s lip, a hundred times more subtle than the Mona Lisa’s half-smile – is it even there now? It disappears! – as she reaches up to the springtime hatchlings in the still-bare tree of what must have been a chilly April. This contrast between cold / warmth, within both the figure and the scene, and the connection between the newly hatched chicks, the woman’s maternal gesture, and the natural fecundity of the springtime (i.e. May flowers) create a brilliant, perfectly balanced composition of thematic and emotional depth from deceptively simple elements.
With a nearly complete portfolio of all Penfield’s Harper’s posters from 1893 – 1898, we can see that April, May and June were particularly creative months for him:
April 1894 (No. 542) – Caught in the moment just before opening her umbrella, the young woman in a mackintosh and Scotch bonnet looks up, with exactly the expression of hesitation, wariness, dread and resignation we all make before heading out into the bleak morning.
May 1897 (No. 555) – A young woman, her body and mouth angled in consternation, bends a switch behind her greyhound. The curve of the switch precisely mirrors the curve of the hound’s tail, and the reverse curve of the hound’s arched back.
June 1897 (No. 556) – So engrossed in a Harper’s article, this woman neglects the lovely summer day, her beau (flowers draped, forlorn, upon the rocking chair) and her dog, who stares out of the frame in a subtle but unmistakable expression of incredulity.
What’s remarkable is that Penfield often uses barely repressed negative emotions to sell, and succeeds, often with hilarity. Take, for example, September 1897 (No. 559), in which a husband, arms crossed, sulks as his silently furious wife takes the reins. This image, produced at the height of the 1890s bicycle craze (a crucial factor in women’s liberation), highlights the frustrations of gender norms as the months barreled toward the 20th century. (Two years later, for August, Penfield would place a woman alone atop a similar carriage, proudly riding past a rail station.)
Much of Penfield’s work for Harper’s concentrates on this nexus of themes: the paradox of Time (change is happening too quickly, but time moves too slowly); the paradox of Silence (essential for concentration, yet a suffocator of dialogue and connection); the paradox of Solitude (necessary for serenity, beautiful, yet poignant and painfully lonely); and the human comedy created through their convergence.
All of this is expressed in his February 1898 piece (No. 562): The gentleman stares at an indeterminate space halfway between his copy of Harper’s and the fireplace, the calendar looming upon the wall; his posture and his cat’s ludicrous expression, one of baleful tedium, reflecting the moment at which they’re both about to crack from cabin fever. The shortest month is suddenly very long indeed.
Yet, just as often, the solitude is generous, poignant, enigmatic: for Christmas 1897, the suited, bespectacled gentleman is reading alone, the bewreathed sign “Peace on Earth, GoodWill toward Men” provoking an emotion both serene and verklempt. The artist with his easel by the seashore; the farmer with his plough; the swimmer, looking with purpose and pleasure at the outreaching sea; a man reading in the radiant light of August, cool drink to one side, buttoned-up with socks at mid-calf as if to say, ‘Crackling hot but just fine indeed,’ all communicating one Big Idea (as the Mad Men say): Harper’s is your companion, and your excuse, for solitude.
Born in Brooklyn in 1866, witness to New York’s crazed ascension into the Gilded Age, Penfield clearly felt the tension of urban clatter against peaceful thought. Indeed, his 1911 ad announcing Hart Schnaffener & Marx’s Fall Style Book is almost a self-inflicted affront to his own sensibilities. Surely told by his client that they wanted “to make a big noise” about their new fall line, Penfield draws a four-horse carriage galloping, at full tilt, horseshoes clattering, whip snapping, trumpets a-blowing, right in front of the New York Public Library, the (then) brand-new fortress of solitude and serenity in the ear-shattered city.
In later life, Penfield lived in Pelham Manor, a Westchester suburb about three miles east of the Bronx Zoo, where he played a large role in eradicating the mosquito infestation in the marshland along Long Island Sound – as if to draw one final line across buzzing distractions that cause so much ill-will and illness in the urban environment. His complicated quietness continues to voice lessons for us today.
Forty-three rare Penfields, including the works listed above, will be auctioned by Poster Auctions International on October 30, 2016, 11am, along with 675 other vintage poster originals, at Rennert’s Gallery, 26 W 17th Street and online.