Strolling through Charleston’s historic French Quarter is a little like stepping back in time, especially early in the mornings or on a Sunday when the area’s residents are off at church and the streets are quiet. Painter John Carroll Doyle remembers a time when the city was always that sleepy, when there were no tourists or restaurants or galleries, when there were so few cars that the neighborhood dogs would sun themselves in the street without concern over becoming speed bumps.
Doyle himself is the embodiment of creative energy. In addition to painting, he has built boats, an Italianate-style villa, designed furniture and art books, even a wedding dress. But what he is at heart is a storyteller, and Charleston is his muse.
“When the gods decided I was to be an artist, they put me in the glorious town of Charleston with its golden light and long lavender shadows,” he tells me as we sit down together inside his gallery, The John C. Doyle Art Gallery, on the corner of Chalmers and Church streets. “I am selftaught, though as a child, I didn’t know I’d be an artist.” The childhood memories and observances he goes on to recount have become recurring motifs in many of Doyle’s narrative paintings.
Paintings such as Ace of Hearts are not so much historical as they are nostalgic, and through them he comments on the human condition. “The point I’m making is that we as humans don’t change. We do, think and feel the same things we always have,” Doyle explains. “When we’re young, we think we know so much and no one can tell us anything. That kid on the left is sitting there working real hard, and the older guy, he’s over there laughing, thinking, ‘this kid doesn’t stand a chance!’ When I look back at my life, I may be more like the older guy now, but I remember being like that kid.”
On an adjacent wall, High Battery Regatta is a wonderful example of the impressionist-style painting for which Doyle is so highly regarded. “The painting is set sometime in the ’20s, and is right where the High Battery stops at East Bay Street,” he says. “As a child, I used to do the same thing—just like that little dog, I’d dangle my feet over the railing and watch the boats. This setting is earlier than my time, but it’s a reminder of what I used to do, it’s a little of my history, but represented in a fictional way.”
In a career that has spanned more than four decades, Doyle was recognized early on for his sport fishing paintings. His most recent large-scale work, In Southern Seas, revisits this theme and depicts a small school of yellowfin tuna carefully skirting a pair of larger, predatory marlin just below the deep blue of the ocean waves.
Other familiar and frequently visited subjects include nudes, still lifes, blues and jazz musicians, and numerous animals, especially The Great American Egret, which Doyle considers an “ambassador for the Lowcountry.”
After maintaining a gallery on Broad Street for years, Doyle moved his establishment to 125 Church St., the former site of the Margaret Petterson Gallery, about six years ago. A longtime friend, Petterson’s paintings and monotypes are still exhibited exclusively in the gallery, and are the only other works featured with Doyle’s. In addition to originals, the gallery offers high-quality giclée reproductions on canvas of some of Doyle’s most beloved pieces, as well as his black and white photography.
I could fill pages with descriptions of John Carroll Doyle’s beautiful, light-filled canvases, but instead, I encourage you to see for yourself—I promise there’s a story behind every one.
Jessica Dyer is an arts professional, freelance editor and writer currently living in Charleston. Find out more at: linkedin.com/in/jessicadyer1.