4 Presidents Who Painted for Fun and Profit

iSTock.com/PhotoBylove
iSTock.com/PhotoBylove

A president recovering from a term or two in the highest seat of executive power in the United States is a prime candidate for some downtime. After all, four to eight years in the Oval Office has turned many a president’s hair gray; it makes sense that they’d want to relax and unwind for a bit, maybe pick up a calming hobby or two. For four presidents in history that we know of, and likely a few more that we don’t, painting has been a comfort both before their executive years and after them. We’re lucky enough today that some of their works have made it into the public sphere, allowing appreciators of both art and history to admire the more artistic outputs of our previous presidents.

1. ULYSSES S. GRANT

The esteemed Civil War Union general and 18th president seems to have had a head start in the art world relative to his fellow president-painters. In 1840, when he was as young as 18, Grant had already completed a watercolor landscape as a gift for Kate Lowe, his girlfriend at the time. Upon arriving at West Point Academy for cadet training, the future military hero more formally studied painting under Romantic artist Robert Walter Weir. As president, he took pride in his ability not only to command armies, but to create art as well.

2. DWIGHT EISENHOWER

Eisenhower, already having served as a soldier and the president of Columbia University in his time before assuming the United States presidency, came to painting later in life than Grant. While observing Thomas E. Stephens painting a portrait of his wife, Mamie, he was struck with curiosity, but not necessarily any desire to emulate the artist’s work. When Stephens optimistically sent the Columbia University president a complete painting kit of his own, Eisenhower enjoyed the challenge of experimentation, but remained unconvinced that he had the innate skill necessary to make it as a painter. Not until Eisenhower was 58 years old, Chief of Staff of the Army, and influenced by his good friend and fellow politician Winston Churchill—an avid painter himself—did he take up the hobby seriously. (He may also have been acting on doctor’s orders: Major General Howard Snyder is said to have advised the president to take up the leisurely pursuit as a means of relieving stress.) Once he did, he devoted serious attention to the work, sometimes spending up to two hours trying to get a color “right.”

Although Eisenhower’s artistic streak didn’t begin until his later years, over the course of his life, he produced at least 250 known paintings, many of them technically unskilled but demonstrating significant, sincere effort. He claimed to have had more time to paint as president than as a private citizen because his time was better scheduled, and the hard work paid off: In 1967, Eisenhower traveled to New York to visit an exhibition of his paintings at the Huntington Hartford Museum. Richard Cohen, a reporter who spoke with him that day, was impressed with his charm but was hesitant to praise the paintings themselves. When asked about the “symbolism” of one of his works, Eisenhower responded sharply, “Let’s get something straight here, Cohen. They would have burned this [expletive] a long time ago if I weren’t the president of the United States.” Always humble about what he called his “daubs,” Eisenhower certainly wasn’t your typical sensitive artist.

3. JIMMY CARTER

Of all the politicians-turned-painters on this list, Jimmy Carter is either the biggest sell-out or the biggest artistic do-gooder of all. After stepping down from the presidency, Carter founded the eponymous Carter Center; in partnership with Emory University, the human rights organization aims to “prevent and resolve conflicts, enhance freedom and democracy, and improve health.” To that end, the foundation organizes fundraising events like charity memorabilia auctions, selling luxury vacations, signed photos, fine jewelry, and Carter’s own artwork—a surprisingly popular draw for wealthy collectors.

Carter’s paintings seem to specialize in scenic and naturalistic imagery, like the portrait study of a bird pictured above, and the former peanut farmer also dabbles in woodwork, selling items like the above handmade black cherry wood stool. He’s also made the jump to stationery: I personally received a holiday card from the Carter Center two years ago, urging me to make a donation, with a neat illustration of the Carter family home printed across the front—a Jimmy Carter original that far outshone other generic Christmas cards (although I don’t remember donating any money).

Whatever the medium, Carter’s work can turn quite a profit, albeit for charity: In 2012, a Jimmy Carter original painting sold at auction for $250,000. It was a considerable victory for human rights, but perhaps less of a personal victory for Jimmy Carter when you consider that he was outsold in 2010 by current Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whose photograph went to the highest bidder for $1.7 million. In 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also managed to score a $1.1 million sales deal for an original painting of his, which makes you worry that the next Cold War might be fought with charcoal and oil pastels.

4. GEORGE W. BUSH

Despite only having vacated the White House a single president ago, George W. Bush has since produced a considerable portfolio of amateur animal paintings. The existence of dozens of still lifes and sunsets painted by the same hand that so recently signed acts of legislation would have stayed under wraps if not for a hacker called “Guccifer,” whose early 2013 attack on email accounts belonging to the Bush family netted private photographs of the collection. While a handful of casual photos isn’t the best medium by which to admire the subtle nuances of the younger Bush’s brushstrokes, you get the gist anyway: George W. Bush really, really likes to paint dogs. Perhaps his best-known work is this painting of the family dog, Barney, which was published alongside an obituary for the late Scottish terrier in 2013:

It was the first of Bush’s dog paintings to make it into the public eye; thanks to Guccifer, it’s far from the last. According to Bonnie Flood, a Georgia artist who spent a month working exclusively to teach the former President how to paint, he’s painted over 50 dogs—really a staggering amount, on a ratio of dog per time spent out of office.

George W. may eventually have wearied of his canine creations, as his oeuvre shows an expansion into cats, landscapes, churches, fruit, and, courageously, nude self-portraits (SFW). There’s a lot to be said about these paintings, as appraisal of Bush’s painting skills seems to be as divisive as his presidency was, but for what it’s worth, Bush’s painting teacher thinks he has “real potential” and “will go down in history as a great artist.”

11 Patriotic Products to Celebrate the Fourth of July

Amazon
Amazon

Whether you’ll be lounging by the beach or grilling in your backyard this Independence Day, don’t forget to show off your all-American spirit with a little swag. Here are 11 products to help you celebrate Fourth of July—all of which would pair nicely with your collection of presidential bobbleheads.

1. Declaration Of Independence Signatures Mug; $15

Mug decorated with the signatures from the Declaration of Independence.
CafePress, Amazon

The names of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence are on display on this ceramic coffee mug. Studying the signatures each morning might inspire you to perfect your own John Hancock.

Find it: Amazon

2. Stars And Stripes Cufflinks; $55

Cufflinks with images of stars and stripes on them

Cufflinks Inc., Nordstrom

Brighten up your wardrobe with a splash of American pride. One half of this cufflinks set is striped red and white and the other is blue and spangled with stars. Together they make a patriotic accent piece.

Find it: Nordstrom

3. Fireworks Light Show Projector; $41

Portable fireworks light projector.
Uncle Milton, Amazon

If you want a low-hazard Fourth of July that still delivers thrills, consider getting a light show projector. When it’s pointed at a wall, the device displays vibrant fireworks animations accompanied by realistic sound effects. And it works indoors, so you can count on your Independence Day party ending with a light show no matter the weather forecast. (There's also a Disney version available for just $20.)

Find it: Amazon

4. Inflatable Cooler; $14

Inflatable American flag cooler filled with ice and drinks.
Fun Express, Amazon

When preparing for a picnic or barbecue this Fourth of July, don’t bother breaking out your tiny roll-away cooler. This 54-by-28-inch inflatable trough holds enough bottles and cans to keep your party going well past sunset. Once the cooler has been drained and deflated, it folds neatly for easy storage.

Find it: Amazon

5. American Trivia Cards; $15

Even players who paid attention in American history class might find this game challenging. Each box comes with 150 cards of United States trivia. Some questions—like what was the first state to grant women the right to vote—highlight important moments in our nation’s history. Others—like how many columns the Lincoln Memorial features—are a little more random.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. U.S. Navy Blanket; $200

The U.S. military has been going to Faribault Woolen Mill Co. for its blankets for over 100 years. This one is crafted from 100 percent wool and weighs 3.5 pounds. The design is inspired by the blankets supplied on Navy ships—and if it’s tough enough for the Navy, you can bet it will withstand a Fourth of July picnic. We like the gray version, but it comes in several different styles and colors.

Find it: Faribault Woolen Mill Co.

7. American Flag Cornhole; $90

Two American flag cornhole boards with bean bags.
GoSports, Amazon

Baseball faces some stiff competition from cornhole for the title of No. 1 American pastime. This lawn set includes four blue bean bags, four red bean bags, and two boards decorated to resemble the American flag.

Find it: Amazon

8. U.S. Map Cutting Board; $20

Wooden cutting board in the shape of the U.S. map.
Totally Bamboo, Amazon

This 100 percent bamboo board eschews the traditional rectangle shape in favor of the outline of the American mainland. You can either keep it in the kitchen and use it as a cutting board or bring it out to the party as a serving platter for fruits, cheeses, and other hors d'oeuvres.

Find it: Amazon

9. Boston Tea Party Tea Sampler; $15

Six piles of loose-leaf tea.
Solstice Tea Traders, Amazon

A sip of one of the teas in this sampler will put you in touch with your inner revolutionary. Each of the six loose-leaf varieties—bohea black tea, oolong, congou black tea, souchong, singlo, and hyson—was among those tossed over the sides of British ships during the Boston Party. Whether you drink the tea or chuck it into the nearest harbor is up to you. (If you're looking for something to put on display, UncommonGoods also sells a slightly pricier, more elegant option with five teas.)

Find it: Amazon

10. State Map Prints; $27 and Up

A poster featuring a colorful map of Wisconsin
Bri Buckley, Society6

These unique prints by Bri Buckley highlight the beauty of each U.S. state in vibrant color. Each state map is available in both a modern and a vintage style, and like most Society6 art, the design is also available on tapestries, shirts, pillows, tote bags, and more.

Find it: Society6

11. Bald Eagle Pool Float; $15

A man and a woman ride a bald eagle pool float
Swimline, Amazon

Cool down the patriotic way this Fourth of July. This massive 8-foot-by-6-foot bald eagle pool float can fit up to two people comfortably, and will look great floating around your pool during your backyard barbecue.

Find it: Amazon

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated for 2019.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

This Is the Brain of the Man Who Shot James A. Garfield

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was about to board a train at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. when Charles Guiteau stepped behind him. The failed lawyer, newspaperman, and evangelist—enraged that the president’s advisors had refused him an ambassadorship he believed he deserved, and, as he had written the night before, to “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic”—had been stalking Garfield for months, intent on killing him. Now, here, finally, was his chance.

Guiteau raised his pistol, a British Bulldog he’d bought for $10, took aim, and pulled the trigger—not once, but twice. One bullet grazed the president’s arm; the other came to rest behind his pancreas. Guiteau was apprehended, and Garfield was whisked away to an upstairs room. “Doctor,” he told the city health official who was the first doctor on the scene, “I am a dead man.”

He was moved to suffer first in the sweltering White House, where 12 doctors probed his wounds with their unsterilized fingers, and then to Long Beach, New Jersey, where he died on September 19, 1881. Shortly after, Guiteau was charged with murder.

At his trial, which began in November, Guiteau appointed himself co-counsel; among his other lawyers was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who normally handled land deeds. Scoville claimed that his brother was legally insane, and Guiteau said that yes, while he was legally insane—because God had removed his free will at the time of the assassination—he was not medically insane. Still, for someone who claimed he wasn't actually insane, his behavior during the trial was strange: He frequently interrupted his attorney, sang songs, insulted the jurors, and declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

(Guiteau may have had a point. Garfield ultimately died of an infection that may have been caused by doctors using their unwashed hands to look for the bullet. According to PBS, "In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from 'morbid poisoning' to nerve and organ damage.")

Though the defense called experts to attest to Guiteau’s insanity, psychiatrists called by the prosecution noted that the defendant knew right from wrong and was not definitely insane. In the early days of January 1882, the jury sentenced him to die by hanging.

On June 30, 1882, Guiteau read a poem he'd penned himself (“I Am Going to the Lordy”) and fell through the trapdoor of the scaffold. An hour and a half after that, his autopsy began, and his brain was removed and examined to get to the bottom of the insanity question once and for all. According to Sam Kean in his book The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, “Most scientists at the time believed that insanity, true insanity, always betrayed itself by clear brain damage—lesions, hemorrhages, putrid tissue, or something.” Guiteau’s brain weighed 50 ounces and looked, for the most part, normal—at least to the naked eye. But under a microscope was a different story:

"Guiteau’s brain looked awful. The outer rind on the surface, the 'gray matter' that controls higher thinking, had thinned to almost nothing in spots. Neurons had perished in droves, leaving tiny holes, as if someone had carbonated the tissue. Yellow-brown gunk, a remnant of dying blood vessels, was smeared everywhere as well. Overall the pathologists found 'decided chronic disease … pervad[ing] all portions of the brain' … Guiteau was surely insane."

Today, portions of Guiteau’s brain can be found at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., and at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

[h/t Biomedical Ephemera]

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