George W. Bush is getting better as a painter. It has been four years since a Romanian hacker named Marcel Lehel Lazar (a.k.a. Guccifer) hacked into Bush family email accounts and exposed to the world the former president’s early paintings, including two self-portraits made in the bathroom. Guccifer is now in jail, but Bush is still at the easel and has released a volume of his recent work, portraits of military personnel and veterans who have served the country since Sept. 11, 2001.
“Portraits of Courage,” currently No. 1 on The Washington Post bestseller list, includes 66 individual portraits and a foldout reproduction of a four-panel mural. Most of the images are made from photographs, focused on the face and thickly painted with a limited but generally bright palette of colors. Highlights and shadows are strongly emphasized, and Bush lavishes particular attention on the eyes and exaggerates bone structure. A few of the paintings capture their subjects in motion — including Staff Sgt. Scott P. Lilley (who lost a part of his skull in a roadside bomb attack) holding his daughter, and Sgt. Saul Martinez (who lost both legs in Iraq) playing golf. But most of them show the head and face full size, seemingly bursting out of the frame with genuine presence and considerable expressive energy.
They are the work of an amateur painter who is focused on his craft. In the introduction, Bush writes: “I’m not sure how the art in this volume will hold up to critical eyes. After all, I’m a novice. What I am sure of is that each painting was done with a lot of care and respect.” He also cites some major 20th-century figures as personal exemplars: Lucian Freud, Wayne Thiebaud, Jamie Wyeth, Ray Turner, Fairfield Porter and Joaquín Sorolla. In the use of heavy impasto, the reduction of the face to a rough topography of color, and the particular love of sharp and sometime jarring contrasts, the work of Turner is perhaps the closest fit for comparison. But you can see what he has taken from Freud, Thiebaud and (the sadly neglected) Porter as well. The presence of Sorolla (a Spanish artist who died in 1923) suggests that underneath Bush’s modernist expressionism is an as yet unrealized hankering after old-fashioned Impressionist nuance.
Bush’s opening essay and the capsule biographies he writes about each subject are charming. He lightly ribs his mother in this account of his first experience with the paint brush: “For the first time in my sixty-six years, I picked up a paintbrush that wasn’t meant for drywall. I selected a tube of white paint and another labeled Burnt Umber. While I wasn’t aware at the time that it was a color, I liked the name, which reminded me of Mother’s cooking.”
In his descriptions of the men and women he paints, he cites their struggles with grievous war wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and the myriad difficulties of reintegrating into civilian life. Although there is increasing concern in the medical community about whether we are over-diagnosing PTSD and including too many disparate psychological issues under its label, there is genuine empathy in Bush’s embrace of the stories told by these soldiers.
Those who bristled at the former president’s displays of machismo while in office (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier and premature declaration of victory in Iraq, or his 2003 invitation to Iraqi militants to “bring ’em on”) may be surprised by the fluency of his embrace of the importance of therapy, talking things through, turning to others for help, confronting pain and finding meaning. Describing Cpl. David Smith’s recovery from a suicide attempt, Bush writes: “Dave sought professional counseling and got prescription medication for his anxiety, depression, and nightmares. Having confronted his trauma and learned to understand and accept it, he began building a new life.”
About the PTSD of Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Goehner, Bush writes: “Little by little, Chris started to recover. He got down from twelve medications to zero. He realized alcohol didn’t numb the memories but exacerbated them. He started to participate in marathons and triathlons as therapy.” A recurring narrative of hitting bottom, reaching out, then rebirth and the embrace of things like sport, travel or helping others echoes Bush’s Christian understanding of redemption.
Cynics will see a familiar, guy’s-guy tribalism in these accounts — many key episodes in Bush’s relationship with these people happen on the mountain bike trail — but his sympathy and understanding ring true. Those who think what now seems to be the case, that the war in Iraq was the most catastrophic foreign policy mistake this country ever made, will not find these paintings sufficient absolution for the cost, the trauma (here and in Iraq) and what will probably be decades of regional destabilization wrought by the war.
But that doesn’t seem to be Bush’s intent, or the purpose of this book, the profits from which will be donated to a military and veterans’ initiative run by the George W. Bush Presidential Center. There is nothing in this volume to support the thesis that Bush is using painting to work through his demons or any regrets he may have about the wars he initiated.
There is, however, ample evidence that the former president is more humble and curious than the Swaggering President Bush he enacted while in office. And his curiosity about art is not only genuine but relatively sophisticated.
It’s worth making some distinctions. There is the presidency, the president and the man who is or was the president. Since the rise of Donald Trump, Bush’s respect for the institution of the presidency — especially the way he has honored the unwritten rules of conduct for how a president retires and the respect he shows his successors — has been seen in sharp relief. And while many may still strongly disagree with what he did as president — as a partisan political actor — that is now being tempered by a better understanding of who he is as a man. This a naturally occurring phenomenon in American political life, which is particularly susceptible to sentimentality.
So, set aside doubts about whether this is just more posturing. Many of the things that trouble people about our new president, and the precedents he is setting, have nothing to do with the presidency or the president. They are about the character of the man. No matter what you think of George W. Bush, he demonstrates in this book and in these paintings virtues that are sadly lacking at the top of the American political pyramid today: curiosity, compassion, the commitment to learn something new and the humility to learn it in public.
Philip Kennicott is the art and architecture critic of The Washington Post.
By George W. Bush
Crown. 192 pp. $35