World Leaders Who Liked to Paint

In their idle moments, historians occasionally speculate on how the world would be different if Adolf Hitler had passed the entrance exam to the Art Academy of Vienna, where he applied (twice) in the early years of the 20th century. Presumably, if he'd been allowed to pursue his dream, he would have inflicted on the world only a large number of mediocre watercolors, rather than World War II and the Holocaust. Contrariwise, the world is better off that a certain British statesman with a gift for inspiring rhetoric never allowed his love of painting to interfere with his career in politics. Otherwise Britain might have gained a trove of derivative post-impressionist landscapes to clutter the antiques shops of Portobello Road, and lost the war to Nazi Germany. One can't help wishing that Hitler had been a better artist—and being grateful that Winston Churchill wasn't.

That, anyway, is one lesson to be drawn from the PBS documentary series, whose first segment airs this week, "Chasing Churchill," a travelogue narrated by the late prime minister's granddaughter Celia Sandys, of the places he visited and loved. Whether he was headed for the gentle flower-draped hills of Provence or the stark deserts of North Africa, his habit, except during the war, was the same. Equipped with canvas, oils and camel's-hair brushes, he parked himself behind an easel and in front of the landscape and commenced to smoke cigars, drink champagne and paint. He was especially partial to romantically rugged scenery by sunset; if the light was better at dawn, says Sandys, he would not have been awake to see it.

Churchill bonded over painting with the American general, later president, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower's tastes ran to plashing streams, dilapidated barns and birch-studded snowscapes in a style that might be called Greeting Card Pastoral. (In fact, when a small collection of his works was marketed as Christmas-gift prints, the publisher was Hallmark.) He was appropriately modest about his oeuvre, which he described as "daubs." Churchill, a far more accomplished and ambitious artist, was well aware of his amateur status, in comparison, say, to his hero Cézanne. "When I get to heaven," he once remarked, "I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting, and so get to the bottom of the subject." But Hitler for many years regarded himself as an artist by profession. An authorized book of his watercolors referred to him in 1937 as "at once the First Fuehrer and the First Artist of our Reich."

Politics is not a profession that ordinarily rewards creativity, which may be why so few politicians are willing to display it; it's probably no coincidence that these three were among the most conspicuously self-assured world leaders of the 20th century. The 19th-century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote 18 novels, some of them fairly racy by the standards of the time. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 interrupted plans to release a novel by Saddam Hussein with the forthright title "Get Out of Here, Curse You!"—an allegorical tale of an Arab nobleman who drives the Jews and Christians from his land. He had published three others, all critically acclaimed in the Iraqi press and best sellers, presumably because they were required reading in Iraqi schools. Unfortunately, doubt has been cast on his literary credentials in the form of allegations that the books were actually written by a committee of officials from the Ministry of Information and Culture. Safely out of office in 1995, former president Jimmy Carter published a book of poetry on subjects ranging from childhood reminiscence ("Of Possum and Fatback") to geopolitics ("Why We Get Cheaper Tires From Liberia"). The habits of a longtime politician die hard, even when he turns his hand to poetry; the slim volume bears 14 dedications spread over two pages, including the entire population of his hometown and everyone who bought the book.

Poetry is, of course, the most self-revelatory of arts. But paintings, too, can reveal something about the hands that made them: Eisenhower's blandness; Hitler's bombastic obsession with monumental buildings such as the Vienna and Munich opera houses. Hitler, too, was the only one of the three who occasionally populated his drawings with human figures, usually drawn badly and tiny compared with the real estate. Admittedly people are harder to draw than mountains and clouds, but perhaps the choice of subject by men who ruled vast territories is no coincidence. Alone in his aerie, the great man surveys his unpopulated domain: the artist as commander in chief.