4 Presidents Who Painted for Fun and Profit
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
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
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.”