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Big dog, little dog: Putin, Bush and the portraits of a leader

An exhibition of portraits painted by former U.S. President George W. Bush is drawing attention, not just for the celebrity of the artist, but the remarkable story he tells about Russian President Vladimir Putin and a dog.

Mr. Bush appeared on the Today television program Friday to preview a series of portraits of world leaders he has painted – which includes Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times

Interviewed on camera by his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, Mr. Bush was asked to discuss his painting of Mr. Putin.

"Vladimir is a person who in many ways views the U.S. as an enemy, although he wouldn't say that," Mr. Bush said. "I felt that he viewed the world as either the U.S. benefits and Russia loses or vice versa. I tried of course to dispell him of that notion."

"As you know, our dear dog Barney, who had a special place in my heart – I introduced him to Putin. Putin kind of dissed him – 'do you really call that a dog?'

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left and Afghan President Hamid Karzai Benny Snyder/AP

"A year later, your mom and I go to visit Vladimir in his dacha and he says, 'Would you like to meet my dog?' Out bounds this huge hound, obviously much bigger than a Scottish terrier, and Putin looks at me and says, 'Bigger, stronger and faster than Barney.' "I just took it in. I didn't react. I just said, 'Wow. Anybody who thinks 'my dog is bigger than your dog' is an interesting character.' And that painting kind of reflects that."

An exhibition of Mr. Bush's paintings, titled "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy", opens Saturday at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. It will feature Bush's paintings of some two dozen world figures he worked with during his 2001-2009 presidency, Mr. Putin, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Dalai Lama.

A self-portrait and a painting of his father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, also are part of the exhibit.

Bush self-portrait, left, and President Vladimir Putin Benny Snyder/AP

Bush had no interest in painting until leaving the White House and reading Winston Churchill's essay "Painting as a Pastime." His earliest works included quick drawings made for family members with an iPad app.

"I wanted to make sure the last chapters of my life were full, and painting, it turns out, has helped occupy not only space but opened my mind," Bush said.

"I paint a lot because, as you know, I'm a driven person and I want to get better. A whole new world has opened up."

Bush, 67, said he was reluctant to display his work but hoped the exhibit, which will run through June 4, will create interest in his presidential library.

Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, joined the interview live and was asked what she thought of her son's portrait of his father.

"That's my husband?" she joked upon first glance.

She quickly said she liked the painting very much – but would absolutely not pose for her son.

With files from Reuters

clockwise from top-left, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, former French President (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy and former South Korean President (2008-2013) Lee Myung-bak Benny Snyder/AP

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