George W. Bush Publishes Book of His Paintings, and It’s a Bestseller

Check out the former president's new paintings of military veterans.

President George W. Bush painting. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center.
President George W. Bush painting. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center.

It has been a couple of years since we’ve heard anything about the burgeoning art career of former president George W. Bush, but he has just published a new book of his paintings, titled Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors. It’s already a best seller.

Since leaving office, Bush has helped veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars transition back to civilian life through the George W. Bush Institute’s Military Service Initiative. The new book features 66 oil painting portraits of US servicemen and women he has personally come to know as part of this work, and all of the proceeds go to the initiative.

“I know each person I painted,” Bush told NBC’s Today show. “I was thinking about their backgrounds, their service, their injuries and their recovery.” On the artistic side, he counts Lucian Freud, Wayne Thiebaud, Jamie Wyeth, Ray Turner, Fairfield Porter, and Joaquín Sorolla as influences.

George W. Bush, <em>Sgt. Daniel Casara</em>. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Crown Publishing.

George W. Bush, Sgt. Daniel Casara. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Crown Publishing.

Each portrait is accompanied by a written statement by the former president about the subject, detailing his or her military service, injuries sustained in the line of duty, and the struggle to recover, both physically and psychologically. Considering how widely he has been criticized for leading the nation into two long-running wars, it’s a bold choice of subject matter—the New Yorker dubbed the works “Painted Atonements” and the Guardian described it as “one of the most complex relationships between artist and subject in recent memory.”

Portraits of Courage, which dropped February 27, was number one among hardcover nonfiction books according to the latest best seller list from Publishers Weekly, released March 9. It’s also number two on the overall list, coming in just behind the beloved Dr. Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham. (The children’s author also had the third and fourth best-selling titles of the week with One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and The Cat in the Hat.)

Timed to the book’s release, Bush is exhibiting the original paintings, plus a four-panel mural, at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas. The book and the show’s shared title is a reference to former President John F. Kennedy’s 1955 book, Profiles in Courage, featuring short biographies of US senators.

George W. Bush, Sgt. Leslie Zimmerman. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Crown Publishing.

“I painted these men and women as a way to honor their service to the country and to show my respect for their sacrifice and courage,” said Bush in the exhibition wall text.

An admitted “art agnostic” prior to his post-presidential life, Bush initially kept his painting hobby under wraps. In early 2013, the hacker Guccifer unceremoniously leaked the former president’s handiwork to the world. (For that and other related offenses, he was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison in 2016.) The paintings, which included self portraits of Bush in the shower, received a surprisingly (but not universally) warm reception.

George W. Bush, <em>Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael R. Rodriguez</em>. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Crown Publishing.

George W. Bush, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael R. Rodriguez. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center via Crown Publishing.

“Paint, George, paint. Paint more. Please,” wrote Jerry Saltz in New York magazine, arguing that “the Whitney Museum of American Art should get on the stick and offer this American a small show.” On the other hand, Bush’s own brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, told CNN that the hobby is “really weird,” before admitting “he’s gotten pretty good at it.”

A 2014 exhibition at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, of portraits of contemporaneous world leaders, followed. Reviews were mixed, especially when Bush’s reliance on photos cribbed from Wikipedia images came to light.

George W. Bush, <em>Ramon Padilla Munguia</em>. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center.

George W. Bush, Ramon Padilla Munguia. Courtesy of Grant Miller/George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Like his previous outing in Dallas, “Portraits in Courage” are painted from photographs. But these are more personal images of everyman veterans, portraits of individuals’ whose service might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

“I’m not sure how the art in this volume will hold up to critical eyes. After all, I’m a novice,” wrote Bush in the book’s introduction. “What I am sure of is that each painting was done with a lot of care and respect.”

Portraits of Courage” is on view at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, at 2943 SMU Boulevard, Dallas, March 2–October 1, 2017.

 


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