The American Pantheon, According To Coyle

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Carlos Cortez Coyle did not know much about art, at least not in the formal sense. But he knew whom he liked, and he painted his heroines and heroes with naive enthusiasm. Coyle was born in Kentucky in 1871 and did not begin painting seriously until he was fifty-nine, after a knockabout career as a shipbuilder and lumberman. But from the first day he put brush to canvas, he took himself very seriously indeed and, apparently in the interest of future historians, kept a log in which he listed expenses and explained the significance of his ingenuous, obsessive canvases. His winsome, 1937 portrait of Wallis Simpson (left), for instance, which Coyle believed “one of my best productions,” was based on a newspaper photograph. Coyle saw the Baltimore divorcée for whom Edward VIII gave up the British crown as “the tall, stately looking American girl, who is not afraid.”

But it was Our Phantom Chiefs , the crowded gallery of thirty-one Presidents of the United States (at right) that he considered his finest work. Completed on December 27, 1931—at a cost of forty-five dollars “all told,” labor not included—it originally portrayed all the Presidents from George Washington on the pedestal at left to Herbert Hoover waving from his touring car. Jefferson is shown fiddling, for the sensible reason that “he was the only president that was a good violinist.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, leaning on his cane, just down the road from the airplane that flew him to the Chicago Democratic convention in 1932, was an afterthought, added in 1936.

Coyle continued to paint right up to the end, despite obscurity, poverty, and near blindness, and when he finally died in Florida at ninety in 1962, a huge blank canvas was found in his room. On it he had hoped to paint an epic Biblical theme. “If I can live to do this picture,” he had written, “it will be the world’s latest masterpiece.”

—G.C.W.