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Portraits by former president Bush include Harper

Portraits by former president Bush include HarperA portrait of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper which is 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, Friday, April 4, 2014. The exhibit of world leader portraits by former President George W. Bush opens Saturday and runs through June 3. (AP Photo/Benny Snyder)

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

The portraits include everyone from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to a grim-looking Russian President Vladimir Putin to a smiling likeness of the late Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel.

A spokesman for Harper said the prime minister was always on friendly terms with Bush.

"President Bush has said these portraits were painted in the spirit of friendship, and that he chose to paint leaders he admired. That’s a kind gesture from a President that Prime Minister Harper respected and with whom he has enjoyed a good personal and professional relationship," Jason MacDonald said in an email.

Opening Saturday at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, the exhibit is called "The Art of Leadership: A President's Personal Diplomacy." It 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."

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.

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Online:

George W. Bush Presidential Center, http://www.bushcenter.org

With files from The Canadian Press

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