The President Who Can Paint

Book Notes

There are few things so depressing as a politician in retirement. Once at the center of power, they often struggle to find a new role in society as a private citizen.
Among the ways they seek to ameliorate the boredom of their leisure time are engaging in charity work or taking up a hobby.
In George W. Bush’s newest book released by Crown Publishing, Portraits of Courage, he succeeds in combining both by displaying some of his recent artwork, with profits going to his foundation aiding wounded veterans.
When George W. Bush left the White House in 2009, he had some of the lowest approval ratings of the modern era.
In the years to follow, he maintained a low profile, hitting the speaking circuit to restore his finances, publishing his memoirs and a biography of his father, and granting the occasional media interview.
One of his most prominent public roles has been in charitable work, first after the Haitian earthquake disaster of 2010, and then working with former soldiers who were wounded in combat.
His approval numbers slowly climbed as a result and I suspect this volume will continue that trend.
One of his surprising private activities, however, was taking up painting, and he did so intensely enough to employ three tutors.
As he notes in the foreword, he was inspired to take up the activity after reading Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting As A Pastime.”
Looking at the results, one might wish he instead read Herbert Hoover’s Fishing For Fun. This volume displays portraits of sixty-six veterans he has personally come to know.
Accompanying each picture is also a one- or two-page biography of the individual and their connection to the president.
At times humorous, other times somber, he and his ghostwriter add a touching element of pathos to these images.
To be clear, most of the paintings are not particularly good. He uses a limited palette of colors and often renders the human form in a blockish, deformed perspective.
Some of them also seem to be painted with large glops of paint, rather than paying attention to the finer details of brushwork.
Nonetheless, looking at the paintings I suspect came later, there is a noticeable improvement in style.
In addition, elsewhere I have viewed some of his still scenes, landscapes, and paintings of animals, and he clearly has some natural ability. Some of the final ones in this book even match lesser works I have viewed in museums and seem reminiscent of Amedeo Modigliani’s work.
One of the final pictures in the book is a foldout mural of multiple subjects and proves even late-in-life learners can develop a new talent.
The irony of the former president’s activity is it received attention solely because of his former political role.
That same political role also filters most assessments of the merits or flaws in his work. Former presidents such as Dwight D. Eisenhower painted, but George W. Bush is the first to have a book on the subject published.
Reading the foreword and seeing President Bush, a man rarely noted by the media foremost for his intellectual acumen, casually mention nineteenth century Impressionists is somewhat surreal.
Nonetheless, while few of these paintings would be displayed were it not for the president’s political life, the volume serves a valuable role preserving them for posterity and raising money to aid the recovery of their subjects and other veterans.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]

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