The president behind the paintings

Last week, a friend of mine gave me a book of George W. Bush’s newest paintings. The book, titled Portraits of Courage, (192 pages, $18, and a #1 New York Times bestseller) contains a series of portraits and stories of U.S. veterans who have served since 9/11. Bush’s foray into the art world has been one of my favorite topics of conversation for a while, and this new book captures the unusual evolution of his limited artistic skill.

Bush’s status as a painter was first revealed in 2013, when a Romanian hacker known as “Guccifer” broke into various email and social media accounts belonging to the Bush family and leaked images of his paintings to the public. Most of the images released showed fairly rudimentary, Bob Ross-inspired paintings of landscapes and dogs. Included in this group, however, were two self-portraits of Bush in the semi-nude. In both paintings—one set in the shower, and the other in the bathtub—his worn, orange body appears timid, unsure of its surroundings. These paintings, along with the rest of his earliest publicized art, carry a clear sense of discomfort—it’s easy to imagine Bush fumbling with his brush as he worked.

But Bush’s style has changed significantly since 2013. In the portraits published in his newest book, his strokes are bolder, his composition clearer, his use of color more commanding. Some of his paintings call to mind the work of artist Alice Neel but, given that they are directly based on photographs, lack the depth of her creative thought. Others look like a distant, misinterpreted strain of outsider art. But essentially all reviews of Bush’s art have been unanimous in their criticisms: the paintings are bad. In an article for Salon back in 2013, Travis Diehl wrote, “Talent isn’t at issue here. Divine or profane, his is painting… imbued with an otherworldly ambiguity through the botched certainty of its execution.”

His talent may be negligible, but in no way does that diminish the paintings’ allure. They’re amateurish, yet bold; stilted, yet full of character. But it’s obvious that what makes them interesting is the fact that he made them: it’s impossible to separate the man from the work. Bush ensures this by politicizing much of the art that he makes—painting world leaders, fellow politicians, and now veterans. I find it difficult to look at his paintings and not ask: what is his motive? It seems impossible that our ex-commander-in-chief does not have ulterior motives.

Bush is certainly not the first person in a position of power to try his hand at art. Eisenhower and Carter both dabbled in painting. Hitler famously tried, and failed, to launch an art career. There is even an artist in the White House as we speak: Karen Pence, our Second Lady, has been selling her watercolors of horses at local art fairs for years. But Bush stands apart in his artistic endeavor, taking it to another level by explicitly placing himself in the spotlight. Bush intends to donate the profits from the paintings and book to the Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative, which helps veterans readjust to civilian life. This project is admirable, but it does little to defray the human cost of the war that he himself initiated. While Bush seems to atone for his political mistakes from his presidency, the paintings fail to compensate for his past actions.

Portraits of Courage contains 98 portraits of veterans. Of the veterans that Bush chose to paint, however, only six are people of color and only five are women. These numbers don’t represent the U.S. military’s current demographics, but they do, it seems, represent Bush’s own conception of the military. Maybe this is the true pitfall of Bush’s newfound pastime: even in a discipline that he is just beginning to learn, his own political shortcomings are still present, just translated into a different form. Bush the artist and Bush the politician have a lot in common—neither is very good at his job.


Graphic Credit: Entertainment Weekly

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