4 Presidents Who Painted for Fun and Profit

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

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

GrantArchives.com

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

Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

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

The Carter Center

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

Gawker Media

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:

Gawker Media

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.”

Huge Collection of Teddy Roosevelt's Letters, Diaries, and Speeches Is Now Online

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Put your research hat on—a new batch of archival material related to President Theodore Roosevelt just dropped. The Library of Congress has released a new online collection of several hundred thousand papers from T.R.'s tenure in public life, including his time before and after the White House, much of which had never been digitized before.

The Roosevelt project encompasses the largest collection of the former president's papers in the country, and one of the largest presidential collections at the Library of Congress in general. In total, it's made up of 276,000 documents, the bulk of which date from the period between 1878 and 1919. It includes, among other things, personal letters, official correspondence, diaries, notebooks, scrapbooks, and drafts of books, articles, and speeches.

A yellowing stereograph of Teddy Roosevelt in front of a crowd
Theodore Roosevelt speaks to navy servicemen in Massachusetts, 1902

Roosevelt gave a big chunk of his personal papers to the Library of Congress in 1917, just two years before his death in 1919. The former president was a history buff who had written a number of history books and biographies on American politics, and he was a big booster of the library during his presidency, so he was well-equipped to envision his archival legacy. He also had a personal friendship with longtime Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam. Putnam promised that if the former president donated his papers while he was still alive, they would be kept locked within the Manuscript Division so that they wouldn't become public during his lifetime, a deal that Roosevelt agreed to. Over the decades, other donors have given the library even more records related to the former president, including his daughter Alice, who donated seven volumes of his diaries in 1958. While the collection doesn't represent a complete reckoning of Roosevelt's written records during his lifetime, it's a pretty thorough account.

A roster of Rough Riders from the 19th century
Rough Rider muster roll, 1898

It includes the first written record of his use of the phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick," included in a 1900 letter to Henry Sprague of the Union League Club of New York, written while Roosevelt was governor of New York. It also includes letters to figures like Upton Sinclair, whom the president invited to the White House in March 1906 after reading The Jungle, his muckraking novel about meatpacking plants. There is also a roster for the Rough Riders, a campaign speech for his failed presidential run as a Progressive Party candidate in 1912, and other archival material from his life.

The collection comes online just in time for what would have been Roosevelt's 160th birthday on October 27, 2018. Explore it here.

10 Facts About Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

One of the most popular U.S. presidents in history, Dwight David Eisenhower won the presidency twice on the back of national adoration for his leadership in WWII as General of the Army. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961, during which time he significantly expanded the highway system, created NASA, and put five justices on the Supreme Court. Here are 10 facts about the Ike we like, who was born on this day in 1890.

1. HIS BIRTH NAME WAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT, AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONFUSING.

We all recognize him as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his birth name was David Dwight. The future president shared his father’s first name, but wasn't called a "junior" because he had a different middle name. Instead, his mother inverted the two monikers to avoid the confusion of having two Davids in one house and of having people mistakenly calling him "junior." His high school yearbook (and their family’s Bible) has his name written as David Dwight.

2. “IKE” IS THE ENTIRE FAMILY’S NICKNAME.

Speaking of names, it’s easy to assume that his nickname (as in “I like Ike”) came from his first name. But the nickname stems from Eisenhower, and it’s the nickname the whole family went by. All seven Eisenhower boys used it (Edgar was “Big Ike” while Dwight was actually “Little Ike”). Dwight was the only one still using the nickname by WWII.

3. HE NAMED CAMP DAVID AFTER HIS GRANDSON.

The Presidential getaway in Maryland was called “Shangri-La” by President Franklin Roosevelt after it was converted from a WPA-built government employee camp to a working retreat for the commander-in-chief. In 1953, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David, honoring both his father, David Jacob, and his 5-year-old grandson, Dwight David. It would later be the location of Eisenhower's meeting with Soviet Union head Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the Cold War in 1959.

4. HE QUIT SMOKING BY SURROUNDING HIMSELF WITH CIGARETTES.

Eisenhower smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day, picking up the habit while he was a student at West Point and quitting only a few years before he became President. His initial attempt involved excising tobacco and the related accoutrements from his daily life, but it didn’t work, so he went in the other direction. “I decided to make a game of the whole business and try to achieve a feeling of some superiority when I saw others smoking while I no longer did,” he said. The politician crammed cigarettes and lighters into every nook of his office. “I made it a practice to offer a cigarette to anyone who came in and I lighted each while mentally reminding myself as I sat down, ‘I don’t have to do what that poor fellow is doing.’"

5. BOTH PARTIES WANTED HIM TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT.

In 1945, President Truman began nudging Eisenhower toward running for president, and two years later, promised to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket in the 1948 election. Eisenhower refused, claiming he had no ambition for the job, but by the 1952 election, both parties were begging him to be their candidate. The public didn’t know Eisenhower’s party affiliation until he declared himself a Republican in 1951, at which time the “Draft Eisenhower” efforts resumed and intensified on the GOP side. In January 1952, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. submitted Eisenhower’s name to the New Hampshire Republican primary without Eisenhower’s permission, which forced the general to make a public statement. He declared that he wasn’t actively seeking the nomination, but that he’d serve if asked. After 25,000 showed up for a rally at Madison Square Garden and Eisenhower bested far right Senator Robert Taft in the New Hampshire primary, Eisenhower announced an official candidacy, saying, “Any American who would have that many other Americans pay him that compliment would be proud or he would not be an American.”

It turns out the Democrats were doomed as soon as Eisenhower said he was a Republican. He won against Adlai Stevenson in a 442 to 89 landslide. Not bad, considering he beat Stevenson again in 1956, 457 electoral votes to 73.

6. HE PRESIDED OVER DESEGREGATING THE MILITARY AND THE SCHOOLS.

President Truman started the process of desegregating the military in 1948, but President Eisenhower completed it by actively campaigning, using budgets as leverage, and declaring racial discrimination a national security issue. In a bold move, Eisenhower also briefly federalized the Arkansas National Guard and committed the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students as they attended, for the first time since Reconstruction, an all-white school in Little Rock after Governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with the desegregating court order handed down in Brown v. Board of Education.

7. ALASKA AND HAWAII BECAME STATES UNDER HIS WATCH.

After Arizona was admitted to the Union in 1912, the United States went 47 years with 48 stars on the flag. The United States had purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 and annexed Hawaii in 1898, but it took Eisenhower campaigning on the issue of statehood and the right Congressional environment for both to make the leap from territory to state. Congress thought Alaska, with its oil riches, should come first, but Eisenhower was worried the new state would disrupt his plans to set up military installations close to Soviet Russia. Congress won out. Alaska was admitted January 3, 1959, and Hawaii eight months later on August 21.

8. HE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT CONSTITUTIONALLY PREVENTED FROM SEEKING A THIRD TERM.

Until Franklin Roosevelt, no President served more than two terms, but the man who dragged the United States out of the Depression and on to victory in WWII was elected to serve four. The Twenty-second Amendment was congressionally approved on March 24, 1947, in direct response to his electoral success. The states didn’t complete the ratification process until February 27, 1951. Since it passed while he was in office, President Harry Truman was grandfathered in (although it didn’t matter because he was profoundly unpopular by the end of his second term), so President Eisenhower became the first to be affected by the amendment. He was also the first to be affected by the Former Presidents Act, which gave him a lifetime pension, paid staff, and security detail.

9. HE LEFT ACTIVE DUTY TO BECOME PRESIDENT AND RETURNED TO ACTIVE DUTY WHEN HIS TERM WAS OVER.

Though he never saw active combat, Eisenhower’s military career spanned WWI and WWII. After graduating from West Point he served in logistics and, later, infantry units located stateside, and after the United States entered WWI, he trained tank crews in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He languished after the war, spending 12 years as a major, but he also served as chief military aide to then-Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, and acted as commanding officer for the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis and chief of staff to then-Commander of the Third Army General Walter Krueger during his climb up the promotion ladder to Colonel. By the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was already a Brigadier General (one star) in a command role that would have kept him far from the battlefield.

Still, Eisenhower was one of only nine Americans to reach the five-star rank as General of the Army, the second-highest possible Army rank. As a rule, Generals of the Army never retire but remain on active duty status until they die. That's why President John F. Kennedy signed a Public Law on March 22, 1961 returning Eisenhower to active duty at his five-star rank following Ike’s presidential service. You may have seen the insignia of the General of the Army (five stars in the shape of the star) posted on highway signs commemorating Eisenhower’s military service and infrastructure expansion.

10. HE MADE OVER 200 PAINTINGS.

After showing interest in the craft when his wife Mamie sat for a portrait, then-president of Columbia University Eisenhower received a paint kit from the artist Thomas E. Stephens. Still, it wasn’t until he was 58 (and when Winston Churchill encouraged him) that Eisenhower took up painting seriously as a hobby. The former President made at least 250 paintings, but had a self-deprecating sense about his art. At an exhibition of his work at the Huntington Hartford Museum in 1967, a reporter asked Eisenhower about the symbolism of one of the works. Eisenhower replied, “They would have burned this sh*t a long time ago if I weren’t the President of the United States.”

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