Born in Pennsylvania to Quaker parents, Joseph Pennell showed an early talent in etching. Pennell briefly studied at the School of Industrial Design (now the Philadelphia College of Art) and, later, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1878–1880. Pennell began creating illustrations and etchings in the late 1870s. In 1881, he traveled to Europe to illustrate the writings of American novelist William Dean Howells, leading him to further recognition. Pennell soon received another commission, now for the British author Philip Gilbert Hamerton.
By 1917, Pennell had completed over 1,800 etchings and lithographs, primarily in Europe. The artist traveled extensively and created several series of lithographs documenting such sites as the Panama Canal, the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite, many of which were acquired by the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. To control the quality of his prints, Pennell destroyed his worn-out plates. He created illustrations for many books and magazines and authored several of his own books, including many publications on printmaking and a biography on fellow artist and friend, James McNeill Whistler. Pennell collaborated on many of his projects with his wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, who was a writer herself. In addition to prints, Pennell also created works in watercolor and gouache. Throughout his career he won numerous prestigious awards, including a first class gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and the Grand Prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. He was elected an Associate National Academician in 1907 and a National Academician in 1909. Pennell’s works are now found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Amon Carter Museum of American Art.