WASHINGTON : Former President and now a painter George W. Bush has unveiled his portraits of 24 current and former world leaders, including Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair and his father, George H.W. Bush. In an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show Friday, Bush told his daughter, "Today" contributor Jenna Bush Hager, about an uncomfortable encounter he had with the Russian president. “As you know, our dear dog Barney, who had a special place in my heart - Putin dissed him and said, ‘You call it a dog?’" Bush recalled. “A year later, your mom and I go to visit and Vladimir 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," Bush continued. "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.”
The paintings are part of an exhibit - "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy" - that goes on display Saturday at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. Bush told his daughter that the subjects of his new series have not yet seen their portraits.
"I think they're going to [say], 'Wow. George Bush is a painter,'" the 67-year-old former president said. "I mean, I'm sure when they heard that I was painting - and if they had - they're going to say, 'Wow. I look forward to seeing a stick figure he painted of me.'"
Bush said he chose leaders he admired during his two-term presidency as his subjects.
"I hope they take it in the spirit in which these were painted in," Bush said. "That was the spirit of friendship. And you know, I admire them as leaders and was willing to give it a shot in terms of getting people to see how I felt about them."
Since leaving office in 2009, Bush has kept a relatively low profile at his Texas ranch, taking up oil painting and hiring an instructor. "There's a Rembrandt trapped in this body," he said he told his instructor. "Your job is to unleash him."
Some of Bush's first paintings were of Barney and a stray cat that he adopted and named Bob. The 43rd president said that he was inspired to take up painting after reading a Winston Churchill essay, "Painting as a Pastime."
His post-presidential hobby was first revealed to the world in 2013, when a hacker infiltrated email accounts of some members of the Bush family. "It's an invasion of one's privacy," Bush said on "Today." "And yeah, I was annoyed. And nor [did] I want my paintings to get out."
One of the paintings posted by the hacker was a self-portrait of Bush in a bathtub.
"I did [it] because I wanted to kind of shock my instructor," he said. "But I also thought, you know, I wanted to learn about painting water hitting water. And it kind of shows my sense of humor, I think."
In an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer last year, Bush said, “Painting has changed my life in an unbelievably positive way.”