Joseph Pennell was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1860. He briefly attended the School of Industrial Design, (now called the Philadelphia College of Art). From 1878 to 1880 Pennell was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts where his ability in etching was quickly recognized by his instructor, James L. Claghorn. He worked as an illustrator, for a time, in New Orleans, in collaboration with Cable, the novelist.
Pennell traveled to Europe in 1881 to illustrate some of the Italian writings of W.D. Howells. While in Europe, Pennell was commissioned by Philip Gilbert Hamerton to illustrate a book on a tour along the river Saone. This commission brought him fame and soon he was collaborating with Henry James, Justin McCarthy and Sir Walter Besant, illustrating the buildings and streets of London. Pennell completed over 1800 etchings and lithographs, executed mostly in Europe before 1917. He destroyed nearly all of his early plates to prevent prints from worn-out plates from finding their way onto the market.
Pennell completed a series of twenty-three lithographs of the Panama Canal that gained him notoriety. The Italian government purchased the original lithographs for the Uffizi Gallery. They also purchased Pennell’s lithographs of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite that he completed while traveling in the American west in 1912 and 1915. During the same time, he also completed scenes of San Francisco. Pennell produced lithographs for the United States and Great Britain during the war, which were used as propaganda to stimulate national pride.
Pennell received numerous awards for his works, including the 1st Class Gold Medal in the Paris Expo in 1900, the Grand Prize at the St. louis Expo in 1904, the Gand Prix in Milan in 1906, the Diplome d’Honneur in Amsterdam in 1912 and the Commemorative medal in France in 1915, among others. Pennell was elected an Associate of the National Academy in 1907 and an Academician in 1909. He was a member of the New York Etching Club and he wrote “Lithography and Lithographers” (1900) and illustrated a great number of books.