NR Digital

A War for Oils

by James Rosen
The presidential arts of George W. Bush

Unveiling original paintings of the world leaders he has known, George W. Bush flouts convention with a daring he only occasionally displayed as president of the United States. First, it is exceptional to see art — a manifestation of emotionalism and, more fundamentally, of humanism — come from politicians. Shouldn’t they be off somewhere carving up congressional districts, or, if retired, attending funerals? The practice of oil painting, which Mr. Bush says he took up on the posthumous advice of Winston Churchill, speaks to a certain sensitivity, a desire to commune with representation, shapes and shades, not often found in political animals. What’s more, it is as if the 43rd president had declared that, unlike his predecessors, he will not confine his renderings of his contemporaries to written memoirs, or to interviews in promotion thereof; rather, he shall enjoy a third term as portraitist, this time in oils on canvas.

The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy, which opened at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas early in April, represents, not surprisingly, a breakthrough more pronounced in form than in substance. As a portraitist — and even allowing for the fact that all portraiture involves an element of caricature — Mr. Bush proves himself a capable if unremarkable beginner. His works resemble the illustrations one might have found in Reader’s Digest or Scholastic Books, had the likes of Nouri al-Maliki ever attracted attention in such precincts. But there is much in the paintings that merits our attention.