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.”

When Abraham Lincoln Turned Down the Chance to Fill America With Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” the king wrote, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

5 Facts About Larry the Cat, the UK’s Chief Mouser

Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images
Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images

In February 2011, then-Prime Minster David Cameron adopted a tabby cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to help control 10 Downing Street’s rodent population. The shelter recommended Larry based on his "sociable, bold, and confident nature," and now, besides rat catching, Larry “spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality,” according to the 10 Downing Street website.

Since receiving the esteemed title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the first Downing Street cat to carry the title—he has outlasted Cameron and PM Theresa May, has had scuffles with his nemesis Palmerston (more on that later), and may have caused a security issue for Donald Trump.

It’s unclear if new PM Boris Johnson will keep Larry around or possibly replace him with a dog, which will probably not go over well with Palmerston and Gladstone, Chief Mouser of HM Treasury. Here are some things you might not know about the photogenic feline.

1. On his first day on the job, Larry scratched a journalist.

ITV News reporter Lucy Manning paid a visit to 10 Downing Street on Larry’s first day. Media attention was a new thing for Larry at the time, and he didn't immediately take to it. Instead, he lashed out and scratched Manning on the arm four times, then hid under a table and refused to come out.

2. Larry wasn't a natural mouser.

Larry the Cat wearing a collar with a bow on it and sitting on a green table.
James Glossop, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though Larry supposedly had a "very strong predatory drive and high chase-drive and hunting instinct," according to a spokesperson, it wasn't until two months into his tenure that he started showing Downing Street's mice he meant business. As The Guardian reported in April 2011, Larry "preferred hanging out in the corridors of power to stalking in the grass" and the building's staff was forced to train the cat "by giving him a toy mouse to play with when he failed to catch any prey for two months." Finally, on Good Friday, “Larry appeared through a window from the Downing Street garden with a mouse in his mouth. He is believed to have dropped his swag at the feet of the prime minister's secretaries.” Larry continued his duties between daily cat naps.

3. Larry may or may not have caused problems for Donald Trump.

During Donald Trump’s June 2019 visit to 10 Downing Street, Larry—who is allowed outside—decided to hang out under Trump's limo (nicknamed "the Beast") to take shelter from the rain ... and reportedly wouldn't move. According to The Washington Post, "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Larry’s presence halted Trump’s movement ... Earlier, the cat appeared in a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street." He did eventually mosey off (hopefully in search of mice).

4. Larry has a nemesis.

Palmerston, a black and white cat, sits outside a black and gold gate.
Leon Neal, Getty Images

In 2016, Palmerston—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—was hired as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Chief Mouser. Like Larry, Palmerston was a rescue who came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Soon after Palmerston moved in, the cats had a couple of rows, including a major one in August 2016, during which they "were at each other hammer and tongs," according to a photographer. Larry lost his collar in the fight and messed up Palmerton’s ear as they “literally [ripped] fur off each other.” The turf war was so bad that police had to step in, and Larry needed medical treatment. Thankfully, the two seem to have ceased the cat fighting.

5. Larry has a parody twitter account.

"Larry" has an active Twitter parody account, where he comically posts political articles and photos (and has even begun poking fun at his new Downing Street flatmate, Boris Johnson). Sometimes he provides educational information: “England is part of Great Britain (along with Wales and Scotland), which in turn is part of the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland).” Other times he just makes cat jokes (see above).

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER