The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

George W. Bush’s painting of Vladimir Putin is great. Here’s why.

A close-up of a painting of Vladimir Putin, painted by George W. Bush,  which is hung between photos of the two meeting and artifacts the former president received from Putin. (Kim Leeson for the George W. Bush Presidential Center)

The world's slow discovery of George W. Bush's artistic talents has been remarkable. Dragged into the spotlight by a hacker named "Guccifer" (who was later reported to be a 40-year-old Romanian man named Marcel Lazar Lehel in real life) the paintings soon unexpectedly blossomed from private hobby to being favorably reviewed New York Magazine's art critic.

Now, with the announcement today that the paintings would be shown publicly at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Bush has officially established himself as an "artist." The latest set of paintings are especially interesting from a foreign policy perspective, showing the former U.S. president's vision of some of the leaders he shared the world stage with: Tony Blair and Harmid Karzai are two prominent examples.

There's one painting that clearly stands out above all the others, however: a  portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The painting of Putin doesn't necessarily stand out because of artistic merit (though I'd argue that it is a really good painting aesthetically). What's really fascinating is to watch Bush grapple with the identity of Putin, a man he once claimed to understand well. "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," Bush famously said after first meeting his Russian counterpart in 2001. "I was able to get a sense of his soul: a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Putin's eyes seem to be the centerpiece of Bush's portrait, but they seem dark, and his expression solemn. That appears to show Bush's own changing thoughts on Putin. "I had a good relationship throughout, it became more tense as time went on," Bush explained in an interview with his daughter Jenna Bush Hager on NBC's "Today Show" on Friday. Bush then explained how his shifting relationship with Putin could be explained – with dogs.

"As you know, our dear dog Barney, who had a special place in my heart — Putin dissed him and said, ‘You really call that a dog?' " Bush said. A year later, he went to visit Putin at his dacha outside Moscow, Bush recalled, and Putin introduced his own dog: a "huge hound" much bigger than Barney."Putin kind of looks at me and he says 'Bigger, stronger and faster than Barney.' " The comment left Bush dumbstruck.

Bush isn't alone in questioning Putin's personality. Two of the most well-respected and prominent books about the Russian leader published in recent years, Masha Gessen's "The Man Without A Face" and Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy's "Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin," have explicitly tried to answer the same question: Who is Vladimir Putin?

Both of those books were published before the Crimea crisis, which is perhaps the greatest evidence that as much as the West tries to analyze Putin, we never seem to understand him. President Obama specifically has come under significant criticism for misunderstanding Putin's motives. Bush's painting, like those books, doesn't necessarily present a definitive portrait of Putin. But it does present us with a glimpse of Putin as Bush saw him, and for that it's great.