Joseph Pennell, an illustrator, printmaker and writer, came from a Quaker family. In 1884 he married the writer Elizabeth Robins.
Pennell began his career as an illustrator. Following his marriage Pennell settled in London where he became friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw and Whistler. In the late 1880s, he was art critic of the Star newspaper. Following in the footsteps of Whistler and such French lithographers as Toulouse-Lautrec, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen and Odilon Redon, Pennell began experimenting with lithography. Whistler backed Pennell in 1897 when the latter brought a libel action against Walter Sickert who had criticised the method of his lithographic production.
Pennell, like Whistler, was on the executive committee of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, and was put in charge of the hanging of prints for their first exhibition in 1898.
Like Whistler, Pennell was known for his outspokenness and deep-seated convictions. According to Hartrick, 'It is a great mistake to believe that Pennell kow-towed to Whistler and was a mere echo of his opinions. He had a sincere admiration for his talent as an artist and was influenced in his own work by his technique in etching, but he held his own end up always'.
Both Pennell and his wife believed Whistler to be central to avant-garde art and were determined to write an account of the man, his art and their friendship with him. Whistler, flattered by the attention, happily provided biographical material for them. Their biography, although heavily biased towards their artist-hero, is a valuable document containing many important reminiscences of the man by his contemporaries.
In 1907 the Pennells were involved in a legal battle with Whistler's sister-in-law and executor Rosalind Birnie Philip, who resented their possessive approach. In 1921 the Pennells organised a large exhibition of Whistler-related material at the Library of Congress, Washington, where they later bequeathed their collection, which included letters, documents, prints and drawings, and photographs.
Pennell, Joseph, Pen Drawing and Pen Draughtsmanship, New York and London, 1889; Pennell, J., Modern Illustration, London, 1895; Pennell, J., Lithography and Lithographers, London, 1898; Pennell, Elizabeth Robins, and Joseph Pennell, The Life of James McNeill Whistler, 2 vols, London and Philadelphia, 1908 ; Pennell, J. and E. R. Pennell, 'Whistler as a Decorator', Century Magazine, vol. 83, February 1912, pp. 500-13; Pennell, J. and E. R. Pennell, The Whistler Journal, London, 1921; Pennell, J., The Adventures of an Illustrator, Boston, 1925.
Hamilton, John McLure, Men I Have Painted, London, 1921; Wuerth, L. A., Catalogue of the Etchings of Joseph Pennell, Boston, 1928; Pennell, E. R., The Life and Letters of Joseph Pennell, 2 vols, New York, 1929; Wuerth, L. A., Catalogue of the Lithographs of Joseph Pennell, Boston, 1931; Hartrick, Archibald, A Painter's Pilgrimage Through Fifty Years, Cambridge, 1939; Fern, Alan M., 'Joseph Pennell', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.