Politicians are naturally known for their political activities, and while many of them receive fame or notoriety for their exploits in the field of diplomacy, their private lives are often ignored or swept under the carpet.
While it is commonly known that Adolf Hitler attempted to become an artist, there were, and still are, many politicians whose artistic endeavors are relatively unknown to the wider public.
Here are 6 world leaders with a surprising talent for art.
1. George W. Bush
Known foremost as the president of the United States from 2001 to 2009, George W. Bush picked up the brush and began painting after his presidency ended. He was inspired to do so after reading Winston Churchill’s book Painting as a Pastime.
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In 2013, his sister, Dorothy Bush Koch, was the victim of her e-mail account being hacked, and several images of George’s paintings were stolen. George’s secret was out, but he decided to embrace his rise to fame as a painter and brought his art into the public sphere.
A prolific painter, his repertoire of subjects included still lifes, dogs, and, most commonly, portraits, which became well-known. In 2017, he published a collection called Portraits of Courage, a homage to military veterans. In 2021, he released a book of portraits entitled Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants, in which he showcases his portraits of foreigners who came to live in the United States.
Many critics have interpreted this artist politician’s work, and particularly his books, as political statements; however, his art on its own, while somewhat pedestrian in concept and execution, is pleasant and benign enough to bring a smile to one’s face.
2. Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill was introduced to painting in 1915. In that year, he was First Lord of the Admiralty and, as such, was responsible for the disaster of the Gallipoli Campaign in the First World War. He was relieved of his post and demoted as a result.
Suffering from depression, he was on a family holiday and was inspired by his sister-in-law to begin painting. He was instantly hooked, and at the age of 40, began his hobby as an artist, which remained a passion until his death in 1965.
Throughout his career as an artist and politician in the realms of statecraft and the military, he took his canvas with him wherever he went, painting en plein air. His hobby only suffered during the Second World War when dealing with the Nazis became a round-the-clock priority.
During his life as a painter, Churchill produced over 500 paintings, many of which he gifted to friends and family. One recipient of such a gift was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Churchill never made any grand overtures about his art. He was an amateur and referred to his works as “daubs.” Nevertheless, he gained great joy from painting his favorite subject, landscapes, in his impressionist manner.
3. Edi Rama
The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, is an example of an artist-politician who was an artist before he became a politician. His father was a sculptor, so Edi came from a household where art was encouraged. He began painting at a very early age and continued through his years as a teenager. His art was noticed by other influential artists in Albania, and he graduated from the Jordan Misja Artistic Lyceum with great prospects of becoming a professional artist.
Edi became a professor of painting and taught at Tirana’s Academy of Arts during the final days of communism in Albania. In 1998, he entered politics when the Albanian prime minister was reshuffling his cabinet and was looking for a minister of culture. Edi Rama fit the bill, and his political career started. His career as an artist, however, did not end at all. In fact, it got a boost. As minister of culture, all avenues of art were open to him.
Rama turned Tirana’s drab communist-era housing into colorful buildings and began art projects that would turn the city into a unique testament to the power of art.
Later, Edi became the leader of Albania’s Socialist Party and, subsequently, the prime minister. He inherited the responsibility of being the most powerful man in the country, yet his office is not the office one would expect from a powerful statesman. It is covered with colorful doodles that Edi draws in order to de-stress.
Since 1992, Edi Rama’s work has been displayed in many exhibitions not just in Albania, but all over the world, including Berlin, São Paulo, Venice, and New York, among others. His art is made up of colorful abstractions and includes paintings, drawings, and sculptures.
4. Francisco Franco
Known foremost as the dictator of Spain who ruled his country from 1936 till his death in 1975, Generalísimo Francisco Franco was also a highly skilled painter.
He began painting shortly after the Spanish Civil War. As head of state, he had to sit for many portraits, and he found the sessions to be interminably boring. So to relieve some of the boredom, he had a mirror placed behind the painters so he could watch how they painted. When one of the painters, Álvarez de Sotomayor, left his paint and brushes behind after one session, Franco picked them up and painted a picture of the garden. When Sotomayor returned for the next session, Franco showed him the picture he had painted. Sotomayor was impressed, telling the dictator that he should continue painting.
So that’s precisely what Francisco Franco did. Every afternoon, he would shut himself in his room and paint for hours.
Franco painted landscapes, wildlife, and portraits. Echoing his conservative ethics, he abhorred the non-traditional forms of art that developed in the second half of the 20th century.
Franco abandoned painting in 1961, claiming a hunting accident that left him injured as the reason. However, at this time, his nephew Francisco Franco Martínez-Bordiú noted that the aging dictator had begun to show signs of Parkinson’s disease.
5. Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant is widely known as a general in the American Civil War, and as the 18th president of the United States. He is, however, much less known for his art, in which he showed a considerable amount of talent.
This American artist-politician got his start in the art world while at West Point Military Academy. At the time, being able to draw accurately was a useful skill for military officers. Topographical maps were especially relevant, and Grant found that he had considerable skill in the artistic pursuits of sketching landscapes.
Grant’s drawing instructor at West Point, Robert Walter Weir, was an internationally respected artist who studied in the United States and in Florence, Italy. His work graces the Rotunda in the US Capitol.
Grant’s sketches involved pictures of landscapes, horses, Native Americans, and a host of other subjects. Sadly, not many of his works survive, and it seems he abandoned his art later in life, as he never mentions it in any of his correspondence.
6. King Charles III
Britain’s reigning monarch began his hobby of painting in the 1970s under the guidance of his art master, Robert Waddell, at Gordonstoun School in Scotland. The school grounds had 200 acres of woodland and coastline, providing a rich environment to paint nature.
Being the heir to the throne meant that Charles had no problems getting his art displayed. His first exhibition was in 1977, alongside the art of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Edinburgh.
Working exclusively in watercolor, Charles often paints in the open air and finishes his paintings quickly and in one go so as to not keep his security detail waiting too long.
“It all requires the most intense concentration and, consequently, is one of the most relaxing and therapeutic exercises I know. In fact, in my case, I find it transports me into another dimension which, quite literally, refreshes parts of the soul which other activities can’t reach.”
Charles’ social status means that his paintings are widely known and have been displayed across the world, appearing in books, on postcards, and postage stamps. All the proceeds from his art go to charity.
It can generally be agreed upon that human beings are complex in every aspect. Yet with famous people, including politicians, we often tend to reduce them to two-dimensional figures in our heads.
The politicians who govern our countries, whose faces grace the public buildings all over the nation, have private lives and hobbies just like everyone else. The famous politicians who achieve near-mythical status in our history textbooks sometimes had a creative streak that led them to explore their imaginations via painting. These paintings go a long way to reveal the nature of the artist-politicians whose lives we really know nothing about.