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George W Bush exhibition: Five artistic politicians

(AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Mona Reeder)

(AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Mona Reeder)

As the former US president’s paintings go on show in Dallas, BBC Culture examines how his creative talents stack up against other politicians.

Former US president George W Bush has unveiled portraits of 24 world leaders he met while in office, as part of an exhibition of his paintings that opens on Saturday in Dallas. Talking to his daughter Jenna Bush Hager on NBC’s Today show, Bush said that he was inspired to take up painting after reading a Winston Churchill essay, Painting as a Pastime.

He embraced his artistic side after leaving office in 2009, and says he told his instructor: "There's a Rembrandt trapped in this body. Your job is to unleash him."

Can any other politicians rival him for artistic talent? Here are five contenders.

Winston Churchill

He won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values" – but Churchill’s real passion lay in painting. The former British Prime Minister won an amateur prize in 1925, and submitted canvases to exhibitions in Paris under the pseudonym Charles Morin. Over the course of 45 years, he completed more than 500 works. In 1948, he used another assumed name, Mr Winter, when offering paintings to the Royal Academy; two were accepted, but when asked if he would hold an exhibition, he responded: "They are not worth it.”

Winston Churchill (Alamy)

(Alamy)

Jimmy Carter

While running for office, Jimmy Carter – US president between 1977 and 1981 – admitted: "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." The former peanut farmer did not always use the words of a politician. Alongside his engineering and nuclear physics studies, Carter dabbled in poetry – but it was only after he left the White Office that he felt confident enough to publish his verse. "I went public in a very cautious way," he told The New York Times in 1995, when his book of poems, Always A Reckoning, came out. He claimed he was encouraged when his early attempts were accepted by literary journals: "I asked them not to take note of the fact that I had been president," he said, "and they agreed." Carter is also a painter, selling his artworks through his human rights organisation. In 2012, one sold at auction for $250,000.

Dwight D Eisenhower

The former US president took up painting in 1948 when he was almost 60, inspired by his friend Churchill. But by his death 21 years later he had completed over 250 works. No fan of modern art, he painted landscapes and patriotic portraits – he was as humble as Churchill about his talents. Unlike Churchill, he managed to paint while in office, claiming he had more time to paint when he was president than he did as a private citizen because his day was better organised. He told a reporter from the Washington Post that he painted in a small closet under the White House stairs. 

Vladimir Putin

Not happy simply to project an image of outdoorsy machismo, the Russian president has a softer side. After shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser dart and firing a crossbow at a whale from a speedboat, Putin rounded off 2010 by singing a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s Blueberry Hill. He played the melody on the piano at a charity auction, and then took to the stage to sing with a full backing band. Film stars in the audience – including Kevin Costner and Goldie Hawn – clapped and sang along. Putin is also partial to daubing oil on canvas: a painting he allegedly ‘dashed off’ in a day sold at a charity auction in 2009 for more than £750,000.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

The Indonesian president serenaded Putin with a birthday song at the Apec summit in October 2013. But Yudhoyono has musical talents that extend beyond impromptu singalongs: he was in a band in his youth, and has released three pop albums in office. While he has sung onstage during election rallies, his voice does not feature on his latest album: he just wrote the lyrics, which are sung by artists including a former winner of Indonesian Idol.

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