Hanging in Andrew Breitbart’s living room is an eight-foot-tall portrait of Abraham Lincoln. The president’s visage — an expressionistic swirl of broad brushstrokes and bright colors — earns the admiration of everyone who sees it, Breitbart notes on the back cover of Ronald Reagan and the American Ideal, a book of paintings by the portrait’s artist, Steve Penley. Yet the muckraker saves his highest compliment for the painter himself. “Penley is one of those patriots who is heeding his country’s call,” Breitbart writes — the call to defend American exceptionalism.
It’s a weighty charge for the 47-year-old artist from Carrollton, Ga. A husband and father of three children, Penley hasn’t always painted with such purpose. These days, however, he produces hundreds of portraits of his favorite historical figures, such as Ronald Reagan and the Founders, to inspire patriotism in his fellow countrymen. “I just love my country,” he tells National Review Online.
Penley started doodling cowboys and Indians while growing up in Macon, Ga., and he continued his artistic diversions through high school. When he enrolled at the University of Georgia, however, he soon realized he “had no other marketable skills,” so he majored in art.
Penley, preppy and unjaded in his khakis and penny loafers, didn’t look the part of a tortured artist. “I remember the first day I walked into art class,” he reminisces. “Everyone stopped and got quiet. It was like an E. F. Hutton commercial.” And then he saw what his classmates were working on. “Their paintings were dark and brown and black and cynical,” he says.
There’s a reason artists lean leftward, Penley maintains. “There’s something about being an artist that causes people to be loners and to feel different,” he muses. “When they get into a crowd of other artists — when you get a bunch of victims together — they’re always going to be contrarians.” Unfortunately, this negativism seeps through the rest of society: “People in the arts tend to lead the culture, and the culture dictates who the masses vote for.” And this contrarianism is rarely principled: “There’s more conformity in art schools than there is outside. Artists are so conformist in their nonconformity.” But Penley’s conservatism survived college unscathed.
After graduation, he needed to make a living. He shuttled between New York and Georgia in search of a job until one day a friend, who had recently opened a restaurant in the Peach State, called to ask a favor: The restaurant’s walls were starving for artwork. Would Penley fill them? With only a few days to paint several pieces, Penley adopted the broad brushstrokes that now characterize his style — mostly to save time. As for what he should paint, Penley racked his brain until he settled on his favorite subject in college: history. He painted some of the historical figures he admired most, such as Winston Churchill, and clothed his friend’s bare walls.
A month later, a bond lawyer from King & Spalding in Atlanta called to ask if Penley would do portraits of the firm’s founders for its office — he had seen Penley’s work at the restaurant. Despite this local support, Penley struggled to find a gallery that would present his work. Finally, another friend opened his own, Matre Gallery, and offered Penley some space.
Penley’s frustration with the difficulty of finding a gallery confirmed his worst suspicions about the art world. “The art establishment was still just not willing to show average subject matter that would resonate with a wider audience than just the elite liberal establishment,” he says.
But his zeal to defend American exceptionalism didn’t peak until a fateful encounter with his younger brother. “He came back from Europe and told me he had been embarrassed to be an American, so he dressed like a European,” Penley explains. “I asked him, ‘Why would you be embarrassed? America is the greatest country in the world.’ There was just this gigantic gap between my crowd and his.”
So Penley started publishing books of his art to spread his message. First came The Reconstruction of America and then Ronald Reagan and the American Ideal. Reagan, of course, was a favorite subject. “Ronald Reagan is a reflection of what the American ideal is,” Penley says. “He’s a great reflection of our Founders’ original ideals and principles like a free-market economy and freedom of religion.” But Penley’s purpose is larger than one man: “If I can take these familiar subjects and show them in a new light, hopefully it’ll be an inspiration to appreciate the country more.”
Penley thinks America deserves greater appreciation because it is a magnanimous world leader: “Whenever there’s an earthquake or a tsunami, who comes to the rescue first? It’s always us. Americans are always first on the scene and most willing to help. This is what drives me crazy about talking to my little brothers. President Obama wants parity with the rest of the world, but there’s always going to be someone on top, and if you want America to be weakened, who will fill that void? I promise you whoever it is won’t be as kindhearted as we are.”
The public’s reaction to Penley has been immense: “I have a lot of people come to me and say they can’t believe I’m doing this. The thing we don’t realize is there’s really more of us who are normal human beings, and the people who are controlling the culture are a minority, but we’re letting them get away with it. I don’t think it’s that I’m that great an artist. I’m just picking something that resonates with people.”
And so Penley will continue his portraits of Reagan and Washington and Churchill. Because he is filling a void: He’s making art that appreciates this country that allows art to flourish.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.