Former president’s paintings on display

By Peter Baker / New York Times News Service

On the Web

Find more portraits by Bush at http://on.wsj.com/1qbLyB6

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.

The world’s most distinctive gallery of international leaders opens in Dallas today, seen through the eyes of the former president of the United States and noted amateur painter, George W. Bush. Graduating from dogs and cats and landscapes, Bush has produced a collection of 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 the hobby that has consumed him, and intrigued many others, over 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 email 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 George W. Bush Presidential Center, 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.”

Portrait of a relationship

For Bush, foreign affairs during his eight years in office revolved powerfully 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, and I emulated that.”

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 Hadley, who was Bush’s national security adviser and who interviewed his former boss about his paintings for a group of library patrons on Friday night. “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 an essay by Winston Churchill, “Painting as a Pastime.” After experimenting for a while with an iPad sketch application, he began lessons with Gail Norfleet, a noted Dallas painter.

He started by painting his pets, producing scores of works. He crafted a portrait of Jay Leno that he presented to him on NBC’s “Tonight” show. By last fall, at the suggestion of an SMU art instructor, Bush began concentrating on world leaders.

Now on some days, he spends three or four hours at his easel. The man who never much cared for museums — he famously rushed through the legendary Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 30 minutes flat — told a private gathering the other day that he now could linger in art exhibits for hours at a time studying brush strokes and color palettes.

Many have wondered whether Bush is working through some unresolved issues through his art, but friends say it is a way of channeling a restless spirit now that he has left politics behind. “Fundamentally, he’s a guy with a lot of energy,” said Mark McKinnon, his former political consultant. “And he needs a pursuit to help burn it off. And it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s also how he relaxes.”

Bush is not the first presidential painter. Ulysses S. Grant studied painting while at West Point and produced landscapes and western scenes. Dwight D. Eisenhower picked up the hobby later in life, after World War II, but still produced scores of known paintings. Jimmy Carter has painted nature scenes, and one of his works was even sold at a charity auction in 2012 for $250,000.

The Rembrandt inside?

But Bush’s new venture has captured more attention, if for no other reason than it seemed surprising that the “war president,” as he liked to call himself, had an artistic side. Just as surprising was that his early work drew generous reviews from some art critics not known for conservative politics.

But if Bush has “a Rembrandt trapped in this body,” as he likes to joke, it has not been entirely liberated. He acknowledges in the video that “the signature is worth more than the painting,” and told the recent gathering that it was either confident or foolish of him to put his work on display.

“The paintings are kind of primitive and amateurish, which is kind of how I remember him as president,” said Paul Chan, a contemporary artist based in New York. The initial works in particular looked as if “they were being painted by someone who had a very literal view of the world.”

Robert Anderson, a Yale contemporary of Bush’s who has painted his portrait twice, was more charitable. “He’s got a long way to go if he’s trying to bring out his inner Rembrandt, but he has sufficient passion and discipline to get there eventually,” Anderson said.

Many of the world leaders he painted were friends. Bush was closest to Blair, the former British prime minister, despite their ideological differences, as the two teamed up to topple Saddam Hussein, only to watch the Iraq War bog down in a quagmire. Bush said he had painted that one “with a lot of affection,” adding, “I wanted people to say he’s a man of conviction.”

Others he considered friends included Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, Angela Merkel of Germany, John Howard of Australia and Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Some he admired, like the Dalai Lama (“a very sweet man, and I painted him as sweetly as I could”) and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia (“a strong determination to succeed, and so I painted her as a strong woman leader, as she is”).

With still others, he had complicated relationships, like Karzai of Afghanistan, Jiang of China, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Jacques Chirac of France, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq.

And then of course, there was Putin, the frenemy who has been locked in a tense confrontation with President Barack Obama over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, much as he clashed with Bush over the war with Georgia in 2008.

Interviewed by his daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, on NBC’s “Today” show on Friday, Bush recalled the famous incident when Putin boasted that his own dog was “bigger, faster and stronger than Barney,” the president’s Scottish terrier.

Closer to home, Bush also included a self-portrait (fully clothed this time) and a portrait of his father, the 89-year-old former President George Bush, who appears ruddy cheeked and bright eyed.

The younger Bush said the lesson of his journey into art was that there were always fresh beginnings. “You can teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “I expect I’ll be painting ‘til I drop. And my last stroke, and I’m heading into the grave, I wonder what color it will be?”