Men I Have Painted/Joseph Pennell

Hamilton Men I Have Painted 168f Joseph Pennell.jpg


THE names of three great Quakers are associated with the city of Philadelphia. William Penn, the founder, who well deserved to transmit his name to the beautiful state, Pennsylvania, of which Philadelphia is the chief city, is well known to every school boy and girl, who, if they have not seen his sturdy and Friend-like figure in the picture of the Treaty Tree, can see it every day, perched high, in rather incongruous fashion, on the tower of the City Hall.

The second great Quaker was Benjamin West, whose name is not so well known by the school-children, or even adult citizens of Philadelphia. In time, when his work is better appreciated by the custodians of Art, and when his masterpieces that are now "skied" almost out of sight in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, are loyally placed in a Benjamin West gallery in the Municipal Art Museum, the good citizens will learn to appreciate the great talents of one who, though born in the precincts of Swarthmore, received full recognition of his genius in England, and who was elected by his fellow-artists President of the Royal Academy of London.

I well remember an engraved portrait of Benjamin West that hung in the dining-room of my father's house. It was placed opposite an engraved portrait of Washington, after the painting by Gilbert Stuart. My father was an admirer of West and his work, and in this way showed his respect and esteem for a great American.

The third Quaker is Joseph Pennell. He, like West, has found in England and in Europe a more congenial field for the exercise of his talents; but in spite of his long residence in London, unlike West he has remained an American and, above all, a Philadelphian. Penn and West were English Quakers; Pennell is an American Quaker, and proud of his association with the Society of Friends, in love with the old meeting-houses, and in complete sympathy with the pacific tenets and ideas of the society. Naturally of a soft and gentle disposition, he can sometimes, when his artistic instincts are violated, be aroused to vehement opposition, almost to aggressiveness, in the pursuit of his pet theories; and, like all Quakers, he believes he is right.

At an early period in his career, with his wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, a helpmeet and coadjutor whom Heaven must have designed for him, he began to traverse Europe in search of the picturesque; and after finding numerous imperfect specimens which were brilliantly and artistically recorded, with both pen and pencil, he found the real thing—the most picturesque town in the world—Le Puy, in mid-France.

On one occasion Fisher Unwin and Pennell met in Provence—this was while the artist was drawing those wonderful cloisters in the cathedral at Arles. There was some trouble with the Gens d'Armes, as the artist would sketch near the fortifications protecting Les Saintes Maries on the Bouche du Rhône. This journey resulted in a great picture, for, on leaving the artist, Fisher Unwin got off the train at a town called Le Puy and wrote to Pennell that he must come there and sketch; and so later in The Century an article appeared entitled "The Most Picturesque Place in the World." Many wrote asking its name and where it was. Besides the article in that magazine, Pennell made one or two of his most famous etchings of that picturesque old French town.

Fisher Unwin spent some time at Zermatt with Mr. and Mrs. Pennell: and there Pennell sketched and climbed. Unwin's idea was that the artist's black-and-white work was perhaps the most satisfactory medium of obtaining the grandeur and simplicity of Alpine effects.

In the course of these wanderings Pennell made drawings of almost every cathedral and cathedral town in Italy, in Spain, in France, in Germany, and in the Low Countries. And Central Europe at one time—Hungary, the Balkans—supplied him with rich and abundant material for his prolific pencil.

Throughout his life Pennell has been a keen and tireless worker. He found in England an inexhaustible mine of architectural beauty. His pencil, his etching needle, or, finally, his lithographic crayon, were always in that wonderful left hand, a hand endowed with swiftness and accuracy in expressing, on paper, on copper, or on stone, the visions of an eye and a mind so sensitive to proportion that he has been able adequately to render, with a few bold lines, the grandeur of an edifice or of some sublime fabric in Nature.

I well remember a lecture at the Adelphi, when Pennell was asked if his lithographs of the Panama Canal did not give an exaggerated idea of the height and depth of the cuttings, because no photographs gave the same impression of bigness. A member of the audience rose and said, "Pennell's drawings are true, and give the right proportions of the cuttings; the photographs are false."

In the same manner his drawings of the streets of New York have given the scale to all other painters and draughtsmen who have attempted, in most cases vainly, to represent the monstrous modern city. He has also presented the abnormal vastness of the Canyon of the Colorado River, and suggested in a simple and masterly fashion the temples and terraces of imaginary barbarous Babylons, that seem to grow out of the hazy, opalescent mists of that great crack in the earth's surface. I also remember a lithograph of the mound of earth at the entrance to the Fairmount Park, the site of the old city reservoir, which always reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens.

Lithography soon began to absorb the attention and tireless energy of the artist. Under the stimulus of Whistler, whose experiments on stone and paper had given to lithography a delicacy, a subtlety, and a refinement of execution before unknown, Pennell himself began to study the process of drawing on paper without previous preparation, and the methods of transference to the stone which obtained the best results. In a very short time he had not only discovered the tricks of the trade, but uncovered them, condemning many as useless, and adding others of his own invention which he found to be simple and helpful. A study of the origin and progress of the art led to the publication of Lithography and Lithographers, by Joseph Pennell and E. Robins Pennell, the first volume of a graphic art series. It was published by T. Fisher Unwin in 1915. In this valuable work the history of the art of lithography is traced from its inventor, or "finder," as the German has it, Alois Senefelder, to the present time. It is a comprehensive story of lithography requiring endless research and nice discrimination in the selection of the hundreds of examples given in the pages.

The publication of this work gave a great impetus to the practice of lithography, and enlarged the taste of the public for an art that had fallen into disuse, save for commercial purposes. Pennell gathered around him a few men eager to pursue an attractive method of producing unlimited replicas of their drawings, and he formed the Senefelder Club, and was elected its first president. The artists and art societies and the museums of England and Europe were aroused to the importance of lithography among the fine arts, and Pennell was delighted to find that he could exercise his gifts of organization in developing one of the graphic arts, and in helping the draughtsmen who appealed to him for assistance from Paris, and Rome, and Venice, and Leipzig.

His authority and influence became from that time universal; and it is a remarkable tribute to his power for work that he was able to cope with a correspondence that threatened seriously to interfere with his work as etcher, lithographer, and author. One can only marvel at his powers of endurance; for, in addition to the various tasks of the day, his lavish hospitality and the time he allotted to his friends in the evening are frankly betrayed in Nights, that delightful account by Mrs. Pennell, of the "talk" of friends who gathered around a board whereon the most savoury of provençal dishes were placed by that inimitable cordon bleu, Augustine, for the delectation of Henley, Bobbie Ross, Fisher Unwin, Bob Stevenson, and a host of other literary lights, or darks, as the case might be.

Pennell was now constantly in demand by the Governments of England, France, Italy, and Germany, to make lithographic drawings, as artistic documents of reference of their great industrial works: and prior to, and during the war he was in communication with Ministers of War and Lords of the Admiralty, who desired drawings of navy yards, battleships and cruisers, munition works and gun factories. His life became intensely amusing, as he would say, for he daily met men of all ranks, in the army and navy, who knew what guns and ships were, but who did not know anything about Art. In the end, when America declared war, he had to leave his beloved Thames, which he overlooked from the many windows of his wonderful atelier in the Adelphi quarter. The Zeppelins had increased in number and in the frequency of their visits, and the flare of the searchlights, the flashing of anti-aircraft guns, the bursting of bombs, all of which were plainly visible from his high point of vantage, or disadvantage, gave him the most thrilling effects for the exercise of his genius.

In America, Pennell found fresh opportunities for the display of his energies. The American Government, like the English and French, employed him to make drawings of the battleships, of the munition works, and armament factories, and to assist in advertising the war loans. He threw himself into the work with enthusiasm and zeal, giving his time and his talent, without remuneration, to the printing and distribution of war posters throughout the land.

No one in the country excelled this Anglo-American Quaker in enthusiasm and self-sacrifice in aiding the American Government and the people in that critical time. In order to procure the sinews of war, he displayed throughout the Union a series of lithographs illustrating, in imaginative as well as realistic fashion, the creation of monster guns, monster locomotives, and monster ships. His theme had long been "the wonders of work," and he now could fulfil his gospel as the chief missioner "of the power and beauty of labour."

Finally, the world of Art is grateful to him for having written the life of the most subtle, the most refined, and at the same time the most direct of modern artists—an etcher and a painter without a peer, James McNeil Whistler. It can rarely be said of a modern artist that he belongs to the world; of Whistler and Pennell it may truthfully be affirmed, and of Pennell it may be added that he has made the world his own.