7 Works of Art You'd Never Guess Were Painted by Dictators

Most people probably don’t think of dictators when they think about famous artists. Rembrandt, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Pollack (to name a few) might come to mind quicker, but believe it or not, there have been a few famous dictators who paint. Famine, destruction, and total ruin are more commonly associated with the word "dictator," but these guys were just a bunch of dudes with hobbies just like the rest of us before they became totalitarian, barbaric narcissists with an insatiable and deranged taste for power.

Don’t worry: your interest in this topic is totally normal. Just chalk it up to a psychological study by way of dictator art. What better way into the minds of the deranged than by examining their artistic expressions? That being said, there's only evidence of two major dictators who were artists: Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco. The rest are either too antiquated to provide visual evidence (like Nero of ancient Rome) or have only dabbled in art, like Putin. Given what you may know of these dictators, some of their preferred styles of art still may surprise you. Check out these paintings by famous dictators.

  • This Lovely, Innocent Bashful Portrait Was Painted by a Monster - Adolf Hitler
    Photo: Courtesy William Hakvaag / Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum

    Artist Facts: Hitler may be the most well-known, well-studied dictator of all time. Because of this, we know he was a sensitive artist in his youth. Many have wondered what the world would be today if little Adolf had put his grand efforts towards his art career rather than the annihilation of humanity. 

    Art Cred: This is a depiction of Bashful, one of the Seven Dwarves from the 1937 Disney animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hitler loved Snow White and even had his own copy, which he projected in his private movie room. It was William Hakvaag, the director of a war memorial museum in Norway, who found the drawings of Bashful, Doc, Dopey and - somehow even more strangely - Pinocchio tucked away behind a different framed painting done by Hitler. He had the drawings tested, which revealed they originated between 1938 and 1940, and that led him to believe they were not a forgery. Still, despite the evidence, there's no conclusive proof that Hitler painted Disney characters. 

    Weirdness Score: Envisioning Adolf Hitler in a private movie theater watching Disney princesses qualifies this one as a 10 out 10 for weirdness. 

  • Artists Facts: Francisco Franco started his military career as a lieutenant during the Rif War. Over the years, he rose through the ranks and became Spain's Generalissimo. He eventually became Caudillo of Spain and developed an autonomous political system - a military dictatorship, to be exact. It's estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 people died under his regime.

    Art Cred: It’s no surprise that this painting depicts violence symbolized through animals. His grandson (also named Francisco Franco) states in his book, The Nature of Franco: When My Grandfather Was a Person, "He would regularly lock himself in his study after dinner to spend time painting...His paintings were not great works of art but showed a quality and realism that is unattainable for most amateurs." Franco was also a hunter, so this depiction of hunting dogs attacking a bear seems appropriate. Most likely Franco saw himself as the bear and the dogs are the people that he considered his opposition. 

    Weirdness Score: If you analyze the painting and connect it with the violence generated by Franco, then it becomes weird in that this fantasy world of bears and dogs was really an actualization of Franco’s regime behaving as animals and treating humans as less-powerful animals, making it an 8 out 10. Two-point deduction for being obvious. 

  • Adolf Hitler's Portrait of the Evil Dictator as a Young Man

    Adolf Hitler's Portrait of the Evil Dictator as a Young Man
    Photo: Mullock's Auctions / via NY Daily News

    Artist Facts: After twice applying to and being rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Hitler began working as a watercolorist. Eventually, he ran out of money and moved into a homeless shelter for several years. He applied to join the German Army during World War I and was accepted, but one must wonder if that was out of sheer need for food and shelter rather than a strong desire to serve Germany (he was, after all, born in Austria). 

    Art Cred: This watercolor painting is believed to be Hitler's first self-portrait, painted in 1910 when he was just 21 years old and an aspiring artist. His facial features are nondescript, meaning no Hitler mustache. But there’s a big “X” over his head and his initials “A.H.,” so historians are pretty positive it’s supposed to be a painting of himself. 

    Weirdness Score: The eerie thing about this painting is the fact that it is so soft and delicate when we all know the monstrosities that the young man in the painting would soon commit. There’s a quiet danger in the pondering nature of the figure sitting on top of the bridge. This gets an 8 out of 10 for irony.  

  • Delicate Flowers, Brought to You by Francisco Franco

    Artist Facts: Franco came from a long line of Naval officers - six generations of men in his family, ending with his father, were in the Spanish Navy. His father expected him to follow in his footsteps, but since the Navy wasn't accepting any new recruits when he applied, Franco joined the Army instead. He ended up entering the Toledo Infantry Academy in 1907.

    Art Cred: The delicate nature of these flowers is so contradictory to the murderous and violent man we know General Franco was. They almost seem to signify the women in his life, perhaps some type of symbolism referring to his wife, Carmen. There are no dates on this painting, so it could have been created during an earlier, more idealistic time. 

    Weirdness Score: This gets a score of 7 out of 10 strictly for the fact that it's so incongruous with who Franco was.

  • Hitler Painted This Not-at-All Creepy or Foreboding Landscape

    Artist Facts: This dark and seedy painting was done pretty early on in Hitler’s life, in 1913, to be exact. The New York Post reports “the artwork comes from descendants of the family that accommodated the young Hitler as he was trying to get into the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.” 

    Art Cred: When Hitler was living in Vienna, he used to paint watercolors of images on the backs of postcards and sell them on the street for money. It's entirely possible that this painting, titled "Maritime Nocturno," is one of those watercolors. Jaroslav Krajnak, owner of the auction house that sold the painting, said, "I look at him as an artist - in 1913, when Hitler painted this picture, he didn't know what would become of him in the decades to come.” Even still, it is a little hard to ignore the ominous nature of this painting even so early on in his life. 

    Weirdness Score: Imagining Hitler as a young lad desperately selling painted postcards to tourists hints at a person seeking approval. Since he kept getting rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the approval he sought was never satisfied. This gets a 7 out of 10 for its ominous foreshadowing. 

  • Francisco Franco Loved the Quiet Country Life

    Artist Facts: In 1931, the military academy that Franco ran was shut down. This may be what ignited him to lead the leftist revolt a few years later. The revolt resulted in Franco assuming the role of Caudillo until his death in 1975.

    Art Cred: In between generating all that destruction, Franco liked to get away with his family. He was an avid hunter and fisherman and spent lots of time in the country. This is probably just a reflection of what he saw out on his peaceful retreats while his people were being ruthlessly slaughtered. 

    Weirdness Score: This gets an 8 out 10 for the cognitive dissonance required to enjoy a quiet country life and also oversee the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.