Joseph Pennell Biography

Joseph Pennell




   Joseph Pennell was born on July 4, 1857, Independence Day, in Philadelphia to Quaker parents. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Pennsylvania School of Industrial Art. A lithographer, etcher, author, educator, lecturer, and illustrator, Pennell is considered by many to be the dean of American printmaking.

By 1882 he was illustrating for Scribner's Magazine and The Century and received a commission for illustrating a book on Tuscany. In 1884 he traveled to Europe and settled in London. He produced numerous books, both as an author and as an illustrator, many of them in collaboration with his wife, author Elizabeth Robins Pennell. In London his friends included many of the most notable creative figures of the day, including the writers George Bernard Shaw and Robert Louis Stevenson and the painters John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. His close acquaintance with Whistler led the Pennells to undertake a biography of that artist in 1906, and, after some litigation with his executrix on the right to use his letters, the book was published in 1908.

In 1912 Pennell left London for Panama where he created a series of lithographs rendering the building of the Panama Canal. He voyaged via steamer along the Pacific Coast to San Francisco where he created numerous etchings of San Francisco from Chinatown to the Cliff House. While in San Francisco he influenced the founding of the California Society of Etchers.

In 1915, Pennell chaired the group Jury for Etchings and Engravings of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition where over 2200 prints were exhibited and an entire gallery was devoted to his work. Pennell was a member of numerous organizations, including the Society of Painter-Etchers in London and first president of the Senefelder Club. His tutelage of artists and scholars continue with his Etchers and Etching and Lithography and Lithographers and his bequeath of his collection of prints and drawings to the Library of Congress.

During his lifetime Pennell produced more than 900 etchings and mezzotints and more than 600 lithographs on architectural and landscape subjects ranging from the Panama Canal and Yosemite National Park to the factories of England and the temples of Greece. Pennell distinguished himself not only as one of America’s most talented etchers but also as a promotional genius who helped to spur the revival of printnmaking and print collecting during the first two decades of the 20th century.

Joseph Pennell died in Brooklyn Heights, New York on April 23, 1926.