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George W. Bush puts on exhibit of portraits of the world's leaders

DALLAS, Texas--Former U.S. President George W. Bush is displaying his portraits of world leaders in the first exhibit of his work as an artist.

The portraits, which include everyone from a grim-looking Russian President Vladimir Putin to a smiling likeness of the late Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel, are part of an exhibit opening Saturday at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. He even did a self-portrait.

The exhibit called “The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy” runs through June 3.

“I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders and learned about their families and their likes and dislikes, to the point where I felt comfortable painting them,” he said in an introductory video to the exhibit.

“Painting portraits of my friends and some people who weren't necessarily my friends gave me a sense to convey a feeling I have about them because I got to know them well in the presidency,” he added in the video.

Bush, who started painting in 2012, three years after leaving office, said reading an essay by the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on painting inspired him to take lessons.

“I'd never lifted a brush before. I'd never been next to paint. So I gave it a whirl,” he said in the introductory video.

Accompanying many of the portraits are photographs of Bush with the leader he painted, along with gifts. On display with Bush's portrait of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is a book of Churchill's speeches that Blair gave to Bush with the inscription, “To George, my ally and my friend.”

The exhibit includes more than two dozen portraits. Other subjects include the Dalai Lama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Bush also painted his father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States.

Bush, who was the 43rd president, signs his works “43.” He has quipped: “I tell people that the signature on my paintings is worth more than the paintings.”

'Kind of open my mind'

Interviewed by his daughter Jenna Bush Hager in a segment that aired Friday on NBC's “Today” show, he said, “I paint a lot because, as you know, I'm a driven person.”

Talking about his portrait of Putin, he said, “I got to know him very well. It became more intense as time went on.”

He noted to her: “Vladimir is a person who in many ways viewed America as an enemy. I tried, of course, to dispel him of that notion.”

The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the library and museum, opened almost a year ago on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

Perhaps his favorite portrait, he said, was the one he did of his father George Bush, 89, who served as president from 1989 to 1993.

“He's a great listener, as you know, and when it came to diplomacy, he was a master at befriending people to find common ground,” he said. “It was a joyful experience to paint him. I painted a gentle soul.”

Bush took up painting — starting with his pets, then going on to landscapes before advancing to portraits — because “there's a Rembrandt trapped in this body (and) I'm a driven person. I want to get better.”

“I wanted to make sure that the last chapters of my life were full,” added the former president, who was inspired in part to take brush in hand by British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, an avid amateur painter.

“And painting, it turns out, would help occupy not only space, but kind of open my mind.”

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A portrait of the Dalai Lama, part of the exhibit “The Art of Leadership: A President's Diplomacy,” is on display at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas on Friday, April 4. (AP)

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