Unless you’re a millionaire or a member of a royal family, you might not have heard of painter Ralph Wolfe Cowan, but if you’ve seen a picture of the Donald Trump portrait that hangs in Mar-a-Lago, you know his work. For Oxford American, Nicole Pasulka spent a weekend with the Maestro, visited Mar-a-Lago to see his handiwork in situ, and learned the basics of the kind of celebrity flattery that lets an artist charge a cool quarter-million per portrait.
When Cowan was a boy in Portsmouth, Virginia, his three brothers would go see cowboy movies on Saturdays. He chose the Technicolor musicals showing across the street instead. From an early age, he found that portraiture was the perfect way to combine his passions for painting and celebrity. “I used to love going to the movies and seeing Maureen O’Hara in all these pirate movies and the big ships,” he told me. “I said, one of these days I was going to grow up and meet all these people and paint their portraits—and I did.”
In the 1950s he painted Debbie Reynolds in casual attire and Liz Taylor in white silk pajamas. The three of them would hang out together in Miami Beach, Los Angeles, and New York City before Taylor ran off with Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Cowan wanted to paint Betty Grable, but he says by the time he met her she couldn’t afford it. Elvis paid for his eight-foot-tall portrait with $10,000 in cash and carried it home before the paint was dry. When country singer Kenny Rogers was newly divorced and feeling unsexy, Cowan painted him in a coat that concealed his waistline “and I put a big dick down there,” he said.