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George W. Bush displays portraits of world leaders

The exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum runs through June 3.

Mona Reeder/Dallas Morning News/associated press

The exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum runs through June 3.

A dour Vladimir Putin glares ever so frostily, full of menace, free of mirth, ready to annex any passer-by unwise enough to get too close.

Tony Blair stares ahead, sober and resolute. Hamid Karzai, in traditional green cap and cape, glances off to the side, almost as if checking over his shoulder for the Taliban — or perhaps for the United States. The Dalai Lama looks serene, Stephen Harper jovial, Jiang Zemin grim.

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The world’s most distinctive gallery of world leaders opens in Dallas on Saturday, seen through the eyes of the former president of the United States and amateur painter, George W. Bush. Graduating from dogs and cats and landscapes, Bush has produced more than two dozen portraits of foreign figures he encountered while in office and put them on display at his presidential library.

The official debut of the artist known as W. peels back the curtain on a hobby that has consumed him, and intrigued many others, during the last couple of years. Although some of his early works, including vaguely unsettling self-portraits in the bath and shower, were posted on the Internet after his family’s e-mail accounts were hacked, this is the first time the former president has staged an exhibit of his art. And his choices are as revealing about the artist as the subjects.

“I spent a lot of time on personal diplomacy and I befriended leaders,” Bush said in a seven-minute video produced by the History Channel that will greet visitors to the library on the campus of Southern Methodist University. “I learned about their families and their likes and dislikes, to the point where I felt comfortable painting them.”

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For Bush, foreign affairs during his eight years in office revolved around these relationships. “I watched one of the best at personal diplomacy in my dad,” he said.“He was amazing about befriending people where there may not be common interests.

Alongside many of the portraits in the exhibit, “The Art of Leadership: A President’s Personal Diplomacy,” are photographs of the subjects with Bush as well as some artifacts of their interactions. The former president is quoted describing his experiences and giving his impressions of the subject, and the subject is quoted describing Bush.

“What’s interesting about them is less that they’re representational pictures of these people, because a photograph would do just fine,” said Stephen J. Hadley, who was Bush’s national security adviser and who planned to interview his former boss about his paintings Friday. “But in the way he’s painted them, it tells you about his relationships with them.”

Bush picked up painting two years ago after the Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested he read Winston Churchill’s essay, “Painting as a Pastime.” After Bush experimented for a while with an iPad sketch application, Laura Bush’s friend, Pamela Nelson, a Dallas artist, recommended an instructor and he began lessons with Gail Norfleet, a noted Dallas painter.

He crafted a portrait of Jay Leno that he presented to him on “The Tonight Show.”

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