Ike and Mamie IKE INSIGHT

Ike Insight ONLINE

Eisenhower Foundation's Blog

View All Posts

Dec 29

Paint Like Ike

Posted on December 29, 2017 at 10:42 AM by Denise Youtsey

Dwight D. Eisenhower began painting soon after the end of World War II. When he began his position as President of Columbia University, Eisenhower watched as his wife, Mamie had her portrait painted by artist Thomas E. Stephens. When it was finished and the two of them left the room, Ike felt inspired to try his hand at painting. He picked up the artist’s palette, with its remaining paints, affixed a white dust cloth over a box, and began to reproduce the portrait of Mamie. According to Ike in his memoir At Ease, Stories I Tell to Friends, when Stephens and Mamie returned “I displayed my version of Mamie, weird and wonderful to behold, and we all laughed heartily.”

However, Stephens encouraged Eisenhower to continue painting and soon sent him a complete set of oil paints. Ike wrote that the set included “everything I could possibly need—except ability—to start painting. I looked upon the present as a wonderful gesture and a sheer waste of money. I had never had any instruction in painting; the only thing of possible help was a working knowledge of linear perspective, a subject we had studied at West Point.”

So it was in 1948, at the age of 58, that Eisenhower set up his first paint easel in a top floor “penthouse” of the Presidential Mansion they were living in at Columbia University and began to paint in his spare time. This retreat provided Ike the privacy and quiet he craved. He wrote that after he opened the paint set he found “that in spite of my complete lack of talent, the attempt to paint was absorbing.”

Eisenhower’s first attempts were copies of photos and other paintings, especially landscapes and portraits. He destroyed nearly all of them. He then moved on to painting live portraits and landscapes, and gave several of them as gifts. He wrote, “I’ve tried many landscapes and still lifes but with magnificent audacity, I have tried more portraits than anything else. I’ve also burned more portraits than anything else.”

Eisenhower’s painting hobby continued through his assignment in Paris as Supreme Commander of NATO, and his two terms as President of the United States. He established a studio in a small, private room on the second floor of the White House where his paints and canvas were always out and ready for any spare minutes that he could stop in to paint. According to Kenneth S. Davis, author of The Eisenhower College Collection: The Paintings of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ike told an interviewer he would sometimes “dash in for a bare two minutes to put just a spot of color here or there on a work in progress; yet at other times—on a rainy Sunday afternoon, for instance, when he could not play golf—he painted for hours.”

Painting was also a hobby shared by friend and British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, and the two shared letters that included comments on their latest paintings. After his presidency, Ike and Mamie retired to a farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There, Ike continued his hobby of painting on an enclosed sun porch. One estimate suggests that Eisenhower completed almost 300 paintings in the last 20 years of his life. However, he did not consider himself an artist or a painter of any skill. He insisted it was just a hobby, and that his painting contained no social or political commentary. He painted solely for pleasure and relaxation. According to Davis, Ike told a New York Times reporter in 1967, “[Painting] is the best way in the world to relax. You put the surface of your mind on the canvas while the rest of your mind is making decisions.”

Eisenhower’s career had centered around civilizations in conflict, and it appears his tranquil paintings provided balance. Throughout the years of his hobby, Ike’s paintings continued to be literal portrayals of landscape or people he admired; simple subjects that pleased him. Just two years prior to his death, Eisenhower wrote in At Ease, “After eighteen years, I am still messy; my hands are better suited to an ax handle than a tiny brush. I attempt only simple compositions. My frustration is complete when I try for anything delicate. Even yet I refuse to refer to my productions as paintings. They are daubs, born of my love of color and in my pleasure in experimenting, nothing else. I destroy two out of each three I start. One of the real satisfactions is finding out how closely I come to depicting what I have in mind—and many times I want to see what I am going to do and never know what it will be.”

Eisenhower continued to paint until his health prevented him from doing so. When he died on March 28, 1969, he left four unfinished paintings. We would like to see you finish what Ike started! You will find more information in the IKEducation Paint Like Ike curriculum packet. Print out the unfinished landscape, on page 11 of that packet, and show how you would complete it. Ike preferred painting with oils, but you can use acrylics or watercolors if that is easier. If you want to enlarge and print it to its original size, that is 18” H x 24” W (photos below). 

On display at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum is Ike’s easel, paint kit, and unfinished landscape. The paint kit is made of pine; the interior has five compartments and the lid has grooves for a sketchpad and palette. Its contents include shellac, rulers, charcoal, and various oil paint tubes.

Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 3.03.59 PM
Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 3.12.57 PM


You must log in before leaving your comment