A Brief History of Presidential Art

With the upcoming release of his crime thriller, former president Bill Clinton joins a long line of creative (and often amusingly mediocre) president-artists.
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President Bill Clinton plays the sax with B.B. King and Dave Boruff at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on April 1st, 2001.

President Bill Clinton plays the sax with B.B. King and Dave Boruff at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on April 1st, 2001.

It's a rite of passage for a president to pen his memoirs after leaving office. But a political crime thriller? That's a daring move for the former leader of the free world: The Oval Office must teach you a lot of things; pacing a plot is probably not one of them.

Nevertheless, it appears 42nd president, prolific non-fiction author, and acclaimed saxophonist Bill Clinton is up to the challenge. On Monday, the Associated Press and Publishers Weekly announced the upcoming release of The President Is Missing, a new crime thriller co-written by Clinton and bestselling crime author James Patterson. While plot details have not been unveiled, co-publishers Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and the Hachette Book Group describe the book, which won't come out until the summer of 2018, as "a unique amalgam of intrigue, suspense and behind-the-scenes global drama from the highest corridors of power"—the sort of stuff that "only a president can know."

Quirky though Clinton's latest publishing venture may seem, it's not unprecedented. American presidents have produced art—both before and after their terms in office—in front of major audiences for decades. In honor of Clinton's latest creative project, we've compiled a list of the most prolific president-artists. This list recognizes output, and not necessarily quality, though the talents of some of our former leaders may surprise you (here's looking at you, Abraham Lincoln).

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN

A page of Lincoln's My Childhood-Home I See Again.

A page of Lincoln's My Childhood-Home I See Again.

Decades before Lincoln gave readers goosebumps with the Gettysburg Address, the 16th president honed his writing chops by penning poetry. The verse he wrote in his arithmetic book—written sometime between the age of 15 and 17—showed early promise as a humor writer ("Abraham Lincoln / his hand and pen / he will be good but / god knows When"). But as Lincoln grew older, his poetry grew more serious, and in "My Childhood-Home I See Again" (written in 1846, when he was 37 years old) he previewed his talent for commemorating fallen loved ones ("My child-hood home I see again, / And gladden with the view; / And still as mem'ries crowd my brain, / There's sadness in it too"). The president's last known poem was written in 1863. In 2004, however, one presidential historian argued that another melancholy verse—the 1838 "The Suicide's Soliloquy"—might also be a Lincoln creation.

DWIGHT EISENHOWER

A serene Eisenhower landscape.

A serene Eisenhower landscape.

Some presidents blow off steam by golfing or tweeting in the wee hours of the morning. Dwight D. Eisenhower relaxed by picking up an oil paintbrush at his studio on the second floor of the White House. After encouragement from his good friend Winston Churchill, Eisenhower began painting at age 58, specializing in serene portraits of places like his home in London and mountain and desert vistas. It was a relaxation technique, and Eisenhower never wanted his work to be interpreted or exhibited; he famously once referred to his work as an expletive. To be fair, though, Eisenhower was being characteristically self-effacing here: His self-portrait might pass for a very early Norman Rockwell.

JIMMY CARTER

The Hornet's Nest.

The Hornet's Nest.

Jimmy Carter is the renaissance man of all artist-presidents—he's published and sold poetry, paintings, and woodwork for sums that would make even Sotheby's jealous. But perhaps Carter's most significant achievement has been to publish the first work of fiction penned by a president: The Hornet's Nest. Set in the Revolutionary War, the book is an eight year-spanning epic that incorporates a love story, commentary on American appropriation of Native American lands, and minute detail of colonial American life. It's also supposedly not very good. But if you like your historical fiction with a side of insight into the art of negotiation, a subject on which Carter is an expert, throw this one into your Amazon cart.

GEORGE W. BUSH

Paintings of wounded U.S. military veterans painted by former President George W. Bush.

Paintings of wounded U.S. military veterans painted by former President George W. Bush.

Perhaps no artist-president's oeuvre has been subject to the same amount of scrutiny as our 43rd president's. For better or worse, the paintings of George W. Bush have been covered, reviewed, and thinkpieced in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New Republic. That's a lot of highbrow attention for a body of work that consists of numerous dog paintings and inoffensive portraits of veterans and world leaders. Especially since Bush never intended several of these works to come into the public view (his painting habit was first discovered in 2013, when his sister Dorothy Bush's email account was hacked). Nevertheless, Bush does express a strong point of view in certain works, such as his pallid, El Greco-like take on Vladimir Putin; he also has a Jeff Koons-like talent for intriguing and enraging the art world at once. Take the reaction to his naked self-portraits, which prompted Freudian analysis from some critics (though others dismissed his work as "bumbling").

BILL CLINTON

Before Clinton wrote fiction with James Patterson, he wowed the world with his skills on the saxophone. While Clinton's 1992 performance in Ray-Ban Wayfarers at Arsenio Hall is now legend, less appreciated is his delightful 1994 set at a club in Prague. Covering "Summertime" and "My Funny Valentine," the set showed Clinton improvising, and, while it's a little off-key and heavy on trills in the first song, he gets his groove back in the second. As with most presidential artists, Clinton's clearly attained a high school-slash-college level proficiency in his chosen field; but with more time devoted to practicing and less to politicking, he might actually impress his salty critics.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

President Richard Nixon's mediocre piano performance on the The Tonight Show with Jack Paar; the nice paintings Ulysses S. Grant produced at West Point; Barack Obama's visceral college poetry.

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