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Pigment and Concrete: New York City through the eyes of American illustrator Joseph Pennell

Joseph Pennell (1857 — 1926) was an American writer, etcher, lithographer, and artist, who produced over 5,000 drawings throughout his lifetime. Because a sizable number of his impressive illustrations were featured in popular magazines and books — many of which were written by his wife and frequent collaborator, the acclaimed author and columnist Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855 — 1936) — Pennell is regarded as a prominent figure of Illustration’s Golden Age.

Although he was born in Philadelphia, Pennell spent a large portion of his life living elsewhere, both abroad and within the United States. As an avid traveller, he often drew artistic inspiration from what he was able to see out his window. Visiting or living in beautiful cities full of picturesque structures ranging from skyscrapers and cathedrals to factories and bridges, he expertly translated what he saw onto paper, filling over 100 sketchbooks with detailed and emotionally charged images.

Pennell lived in a rapidly changing world brought about by the not-so-distant Industrial Revolution and often referred to his images of construction and technology as “The Wonder of Work.” His impeccable skill at depicting striking scenes involving cityscapes, industrial elements, architectural wonders, and cultural landmarks is nothing short of remarkable, and even though most of his art was unpublished during his lifetime, a lot of it was created for personal rather than professional reasons.

Lest liberty perish from the face of the earth - buy bonds / Joseph Pennell, del. & c. (1918) by Joseph Pennell

Still, his commercial work is notable. “One of his best-known designs is for a World War I poster, called That Liberty Shall Not Perish from the Earth.” It was made with watercolor and crayon on on a 97.5 x 81.3 in. sheet in 1918.

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum of Art:

“During World War I, he created a number of important poster designs as a part of Charles Dana Gibson's Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information, which was organized when the United States entered the war in 1917. Pennell characterized the relationship of government to the arts at the time: ‘When the United States wished to make public its wants, whether of men or money, it found that art — as the European countries had found — was the best medium.’”

To create his drawings, Pennell relied on different types of paper and used watermedia (watercolor, gouache, wash), chalk and charcoal, pencils, crayons (including lithographic crayons), and pastels. Out of the 4,700 works of art he left for the Library of Congress, “many of the almost 3,400 loose sheet drawings were originally in sketchbooks, and some 1,300 images are still bound together in 42 of his original volumes.” He also left an extensive collection of prints, manuscripts, and books.

Pennell worked on more than one hundred books as either a writer or illustrator or both; he was a biographer of American avant-garde artist and fellow ex-patriot James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834 — 1903), and wrote several travel books in collaboration with his wife. Some of the couple's friends included writers George Bernard Shaw (1856 — 1950), Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 — 1894), and Henry James (1843 — 1916), among others. Today, however, Pennell is more known for his prints and illustrations that his literary accomplishments.

Although the Pennells were based in London from 1884 to 1917, the family ultimately resided in New York City from 1918 to 1926. But, long before the Pennells moved to the Big Apple, Joseph Pennell's love of its architecture and industrial infrastructure was evident through his beautiful art work.

Title: Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Thirty-Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1904 and 1908

Summary: New York City. Diagonal view down Fifth Avenue, large green carriage on street and far sidewalk crowded with scribbled figures, past bank building to large red presence of the old Waldorf Astoria Hotel, onion domes, antennas above.

Materials: brown paper (sheet 29.3 x 23.1 cm), colored crayons over pencil sketch

Title: One Hundred and Tenth Street

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1904 and 1908

Summary: New York City. View looking down from under the elevated at street below, scribbled figures on sidewalks, horse and carriages on street, yellow trolley crossing halfway down.

Materials: brown paper (sheet 32.1 x 25.4 cm), colored crayon over pencil sketch

Title: Coney Island

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1904 and 1908

Summary: New York City. View from above of crowd jammed around circular platform built over water containing ringmaster and performers, colorful flying creatures above, exotic towers, flags in background.

Materials: brown paper (sheet 32.1 x 25.5 cm), pastel crayon, pencil

Title: Chute the Chutes, Luna Park, Coney Island

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1904 and 1908

Summary: New York City. Downward view of Chute the Chute ride, as track enters tunnel. Domed structures on either side, colorful flags and streamers in background, sky heavily accented with white.

Materials: reddish brown paper (sheet 32.1 x 25.5 cm), pencil, colored pencil

Title: The balloon, Coney Island

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1904 and 1908

Summary: New York City. View down street of Coney Island, figures walking, ferris wheel dominates right side, tower frames left, with purplish balloon floating above in sky with trails of orange and yellow.

Materials: brown paper (sheet 31.8 x 25.4 cm), pencil, colored pencil

Title: Smoke and fog on gray day, New York City

By: Joseph Pennell

Published: between 1910 and 1926

Summary: New York City. As Wuerth described, "View from Brooklyn, in foreground rooftops, the river, in the distance skyscrapers in a smoky, foggy atmosphere under a gray sky. Colors, black, gray, brown, white, red, blue and cream, on gray paper."

Materials: dark gray paper (sheet 30.4 x 22.8 cm), watercolor, gouache

Note* All of the images and their descriptions are curtesy of the Library of Congress


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