Steve Penley is a Georgia-based painter and illustrator known nationally and internationally for his politically-themed portraits and paintings of iconic American images. Penley’s paintings are admired in conservative circles and can be found in Republican state offices around the nation.
Stephan Lyall Penley was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on December 27, 1964. His family soon relocated to Athens and later to Macon where he graduated high school. Born into a family of musicians, Penley worked in his father’s piano shop until his college years. He enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens as an undergraduate, but transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York City to pursue a career as a painter. Before completing his degree, Penley moved to Atlanta and continued to paint while working odd jobs. In 1992 Robert Steed, an Atlanta attorney and art enthusiast, noticed Penley’s artwork in a Midtown Atlanta restaurant. They quickly became friends, and Steed’s patronage enabled Penley to break into the Atlanta art scene.
Penley is best known for his portraits of iconic Americans such as U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and painter Georgia O’Keefe. Many of his subjects are former presidents. Penley’s most common subject is U.S. president George Washington. He is primarily a figurative painter, but he also specializes in painting still life images of flowers.
Penley has been influenced by abstract expressionism, a style that emerged after World War II (1941-1945) and that uses abstract brush stokes to convey emotion. Composed of bold brushstrokes and vivid colors, his works evoke comparisons to famous abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Unlike Pollock and Basquiat, however, Penley does not abandon naturalism completely. His portraits maintain a likeness to their models. The artist takes the opposite approach when he paints flowers. The backgrounds of his still lifes are solid in color, while the flowers are vaguely rendered by choppy brushstrokes of color. The lines that define the faces in his portraits are absent in his flower series.
One measure of Penley’s success is the prestige and number of his collectors. Most notably, he is the unofficial in-house artist of the Coca-Cola Company, which regularly commissions him to execute various projects. Other major collectors include Chick-fil-A, the Federal Reserve Board, AirTran/Southwest Airlines, Mercer University, and the Georgia Museum of Art.
In addition to painting, Steve Penley has written and illustrated two books, The Reconstruction of America (2008) and Ronald Reagan and the American Ideal (2010). These books, like many of his paintings, emphasize his conservative views. In Ronald Reagan and the American Ideal, Penley states that the goal of the book and his paintings are to “reconstruct the American heroic image which has been deconstructed in the postmodernist era.”
While his subject matter has endeared him to prominent conservatives, art critics have been less enamored with his work, a feeling that, according to Penley, is mutual. But what support he lacks in New York’s art world, Penley makes up for on Capitol Hill. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senator Johnny Isakson are among Penley’s many admirers in Washington, and conservative themes figure prominently in his work, a fact that prompted The Atlantic to label him “The Republican Painter” in 2015.
Penley has maintained strong ties with the University of Georgia, illustrating three books by legendary football coach Vince Dooley.