Joseph Pennell: The Artist at War

“If only the engines turned out were engines of peace”

by Katherine Blood

American artist, illustrator, teacher, and author Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was working in Germany when the Great War started. After returning to his longtime home base in England, he embarked on a hallmark World War I series of prints and drawings in that battered Allied nation. He continued the series after returning to America in 1917, as the United States entered the war.

Joseph Pennell at work (c. 1922). William Shewell Ellis, photographer.

A Philadelphia-born Quaker, Pennell was personally opposed to war, yet he actively joined in supporting the nation’s war effort. His ambivalence comes through in the introduction to Joseph Pennell’s Pictures of War Work in America, published in 1918: “… it is the working of the great machinery in the great mills which I find so inspiring … if only the engines turned out were engines of peace — how much better would the world be.”

Pennell served as an associate chairman of the Division of Pictorial Publicity within the Committee on Public Information (CPI), established by Woodrow Wilson in April 1917. In this capacity, he was granted special access to shipyards, munitions factories, and other sites of furious war preparation that Pennell chronicled in his CPI art. In the increasingly tense and suspicious wartime atmosphere, as CPI assistant secretary H. Devitt Welsh negotiated permissions for Pennell to make drawings in sensitive areas, he noted that the artist’s celebrity was both an asset and liability: “[T]he best part of the world knows who you are,” Welsh wrote to Pennell in June 1918, “still you might get in a state that has never exhibited your well-known Liberty Loan Poster or any of your work.”

The well-known work to which Welsh referred is Pennell’s dramatic design for the Fourth Liberty Loan Drive of 1918. His indelible image for the poster, That Liberty Shall not Perish from the Earth — Buy Liberty Bonds, depicts a devastated Statue of Liberty in New York harbor and, behind it, enemy planes attacking the burning city. Pennell’s large-scale original drawing for the poster, the finished poster, more than 100 of Pennell’s War Work-related drawings, and about 85 of his war series lithographs are among the thousands of items in the Library’s Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell Collection.

Design drawing (left) and poster: “That liberty shall not perish from the earth — buy Liberty Bonds.”

Katherine Blood is curator of fine prints in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress preserves and provides access to the most comprehensive collection of World War I holdings in the nation. Explore the Great War at loc.gov/wwi.