…painting a picture is like fighting a battle; and trying to paint a picture is, I suppose, like trying to fight a battle. It is, if anything, more exciting than fighting it successfully. But the principle is the same.
-Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime (1965)
Mimizan Plage, Landes. Churchill (1920)
Throughout history, a select few political leaders have painted as a hobby: Winston Churchill, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George W. Bush. Although painting and political policy seem to be polar opposites and both too time consuming to pursue simultaneously, these four politicians exemplify that painting is a balancing and mindful practice—something that is especially advantageous in a busy, high-pressured life. Are there other political figures who painted? Ones with much darker roles in history? Sure. As many of us know, Hitler was rejected from art school. I discuss the following four figures because, for me, they best demonstrate the benefits and joy that painting has to offer.
I start with Churchill because he was arguably the most passionate painter out of the bunch. He painted 530 works in his lifetime, which is especially impressive because he did not start painting until he was 40 years old.
Why did he start painting? After a failed naval attack in the Dardanelles that occurred under his leadership as First Lord of the Admiralty during World War I, Churchill resigned and started to paint as a way to overcome his chronic depression. His sister-in-law originally encouraged him to paint. She lent him her young son’s paint kit. From there, Churchill never stopped. He famously said "experiments with a child's paint-box led me the next morning to produce a complete outfit in oils." Shortly after, artist and friend Hazel Lavery taught him some techniques that led Churchill to pursue his hobby more seriously.
Winter Sunshine, Chartwell, 1924
In 1924, Churchill won his first amateur prize for "Winter Sunshine, Chartwell," a sunny depiction of his home in Chartwell. That same year, he sent five paintings to be exhibited in Paris. Four were sold for £30 each. Although he made some money from his work, he remained a devoted painter because it made him happy. He found tranquility in art. As English journalist William Rees-Mogg stated, "In his own life, he had to suffer the 'black dog' of depression. In his landscapes and still lives there is no sign of depression." Indeed, the majority of Churchill’s works are peaceful, impressionist landscapes painted with pastel colors.
Distant View of the Pyramids, 1921
Churchill discovered that painting landscapes allowed him to notice details – varying hues, lights, forms – that he never noticed before. Painting became a meditative process. It consoled and rejuvenated him. He reflected on his soothing observational landscape studies:
“One is quite astonished to find how many things there are in the landscape, and in every object in it, one never noticed before. And this is a tremendous new pleasure and interest which invests every walk or drive with an added object. So many colours on the hillside, each different in shadow and in sunlight; such brilliant reflections in the pool, each a key lower than what they repeat; such lovely lights gilding or silvering surface or outline, all tinted exquisitely with pale colour, rose, orange, green or violet.”
The Harbour at St. Jean Cap Ferrat, 1921
He painted during times of war and peace. For instance, he managed to paint one canvas in January 1943, during a visit to meet Franklin Roosevelt in North Africa. He also painted after his daughter, Marigold, passed away. Painting provided a remedy for pressure and anxiety, as demonstrated by the following excerpt from his book, Painting as a Pastime.
“Like a sea-beast fished up from the depths, or a diver too suddenly hoisted, my veins threatened to burst from the fall in pressure. I had great anxiety and no means of relieving it ... And then it was that the Muse of Painting came to my rescue — out of charity and out of chivalry ... — and said, “Are these toys any good to you? They amuse some people.”
Churchill’s words and works continue to inspire people to paint today, leaving the legacy that it’s never too late to learn a new art.
Distant View of Eze, date unkown
Click here to see more of Churchill's paintings.
Ulysses S. Grant
Although he did not pursue painting to the extent that Churchill did, Grant was an accomplished painter. While he was training at West Point Military Academy, he created paintings and sketches that are still around today. Many are privately owned, and a few are in museums.
Is that a sword or a big paintbrush in his hand?? :)
Grant especially loved details. One of his most famous pieces is a painting of a Native American trader kneeling beside a dog and a woman breastfeeding. It is on display at the museum at West Point.
He also made paintings to give as gifts. At the age of 18, he painted a tranquil landscape for his girlfriend at the time, Kate Lowe. In the 1870s, he gave several of his pieces to Adolph Borie, Secretary of the Navy and one of his favorite card playing partners.
He created several sketches of horses because they were favorite animal, and he was the greatest horse rider in the army, (fun fact – one of the few times Grant became angry was when he saw a horse being mistreated during the Civil War.)
Check out the paintings discussed on this webpage.
Grant’s hobby revealed a softer side to him. As President, he spoke about the satisfaction he felt when he created something “artistic.” And he wasn’t the first president to pick up a paintbrush – read on to see who else!
Eisenhower started painting at a much later age than Grant, but guess who encouraged him to start painting? His good buddy, Winston Churchill! By this time, Eisenhower was 58 years old and the Chief of Staff of the Army. It is also said that Major General Howard Snyder recommended that he paint as a way to relieve stress. Once he started, he couldn’t stop. He would sometimes spend up to two hours trying to get a color “right.” Below is a portrait of Mamie Eisenhower, painted by Thomas E. Stephens, that originally inspired him to pick up a paintbrush.
Eisenhower stated that he found more time to paint as president because his time was better scheduled. By the end of his lifetime, he produced at least 250 known paintings. Although unskilled, they show significant effort. His art was even displayed in New York at the Huntington Hartford Museum in 1967.
Eisenhower’s hobby represents the importance of appreciating the arts at a national level. He gave one of his paintings, “Landscape in Switzerland” to Major General and Mrs. Everett S. Hughes. In 1980, Mrs. Hughes niece inherited the painting, and then sold it to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum Foundation three years later, where it remains today. It is held here because Lyndon Johnson was committed to prioritizing the arts.
This preservation and appreciation for Eisenhower’s work illustrate that political leaders have continued to promote the arts as a national priority.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1942
President George W. Bush
After reading Churchill’s Painting as a Pastime, President Bush was inspired to pick up a brush in 2012. Perhaps the most interesting fact is that he painted 30 portraits of various world leaders who he collaborated with as president. The portraits illustrate his relationship with that person. For instance, Vladmir Putin looks disinterested and concerned in his portrait. The Dalai Lama looks joyful and amused. The portrait of Bush’s father is perhaps the most carefully done with extra details and colors. Bush explain that painting helped him relax and express his thoughts in a new way. He also loved to paint dogs.
Painting can serve many purposes – it can be someone’s entire livelihood, or it can be a casual hobby. These 4 individuals’ genuine interest in painting represents the benefits that art can provide as a way to relieve stress, express love, and think creatively—abilities that are especially important for people in political power. Above all, their stories show that anyone (you?) can learn to paint – no matter your age or how busy you are.
To close, a note from Churchill:
“Happy are the painters for they shall not be lonely. Light and colour, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”
Churchill waving the Victory sign to the crowd in Whitehall on the day he announced to the nation that Germany had been defeated, 8 May 1945.