The man who painted this portrait of Donald Trump has died

‘I’ve painted everyone in Palm Beach,’ Ralph Wolfe Cowan told Trump. ‘I’d like to paint a portrait of you.’


Ralph Wolfe Cowan, portraitist of celebrities, royals and presidents — including a dashing Donald Trump togged out in his tennis whites — died Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, in West Palm Beach. He was 86.

His jet-setting career took him to palaces around the world, and to Palm Beach, where his portraits were in high demand.

“Ralph was the person who made everybody happy,” said decorator and Palm Beach Daily News columnist Carleton Varney, who knew the artist well. “Everybody he painted loved their painting. Why did they love it? Because they looked better on canvas. He made them look beautiful.”

Mr. Cowan’s Clark Gable-like good looks and charisma added to his popularity, as well as his fund of anecdotes about celebrities he’d painted.

“A lot of people in Palm Beach have a lot of money, but they don’t know a lot of kings,” said his longtime manager Steve Mohler. “I think they found him fascinating.”

Resident Pamela O’Connor commissioned portraits of herself, her son Morgan and her mother Rose Orthwein. “He really captured the essence of the personality, especially through the eyes,” she said.

She met the painter through her friend Prince Albert II of Monaco. Mr. Cowan painted the prince’s mother, the former Grace Kelly, in 1956, when she was newly married to his father, Prince Rainier III. In 1981, Princess Grace invited him to Monaco for a family portrait that now hangs in the Throne Room.

Mr. Cowan was born Dec. 16, 1931, in Phoebus, Virginia. He started painting when he just 3, Mohler said. After graduating from high school, he studied art at the Art Students League in New York.

He served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, when he painted military brass.

His first taste of Palm Beach came when he was still in the military, when he met Joseph Davies through the pilot of Davies’ private plane. Davies invited the artist to dine with him and his wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, at Mar-a-Lago, Post’s Palm Beach estate.

Years later, Mr. Cowan was driving by Mar-a-Lago when he spotted Trump, who bought the estate in 1985, on the grounds and pulled in.

“I’ve painted everyone in Palm Beach,” he told Trump. “I’d like to paint a portrait of you.”

The 1989 painting, dubbed The Visionary, portrays Trump sporting a casual Palm Beach look with the sun flaming through the clouds behind him.

Trump loved the portrait, except for one thing — the left hand. He prodded the artist, who had deliberately left some portions looking sketchy, for years about “finishing” the painting.

“Finally he said ‘How much would you charge to finish the hand?’” Mohler said. “So Ralph finished the hand. I think he thought Ralph was negotiating. That wasn’t the case at all.”

The portrait now hangs in the bar at The Mar-a-Lago Club.

Later, Trump’s second wife, Marla, commissioned Mr. Cowan for a sepia portrait of his children Ivanka, Eric, Donald Jr. and Tiffany as a Father’s Day present for her husband.

Trump approached him about a portrait of Melania. Mr. Cowan declined, because Trump didn’t want to pay for it.

After leaving the military, Mr. Cowan supported himself as a model in New York and painted on the side. He was married briefly and fathered two sons, with whom he’s had little contact since their parents’ divorce.

He opened a studio in the 1950s at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, where he partied with and painted such celebrities as Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor and Johnny Mathis, who became a lifelong friend. His portrait of Mathis dressed entirely in white adorns the singer’s 1959 album Heavenly.

In the 1960s, Mr. Cowan moved to Las Vegas, where he set up shop in the newly built Caesar’s Palace. He painted casino owners and mobsters and their families, as well as headliners and another king.

Mr. Cowan brushed off Elvis Presley’s calls, thinking he was an impersonator, until Presley convinced him he was the real deal. All he wanted was to be painted in white, like Mathis. The painting, the only one Presley ever commissioned, hangs in Graceland.

In the 1970s, Mr. Cowan relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, where he became popular with the thoroughbred set. When his drinking got out of hand in the late 1970s, his friends sent him to a treatment center in West Palm Beach.

Once sober, he settled in an apartment in Palm Beach and rented space during the season to sell his art.

A big paycheck from the Sultan of Brunei, who he painted 18 times, enabled him to buy a sprawling property in West Palm Beach, which he filled with gilt-framed paintings, refurbished cast-offs from mansions and photographs of his celebrity pals.

“People expect artists to live differently,” he told Mohler. “If you live in a place that looks like a corporate executive’s they’ll never buy your art.”

Mr. Cowan suffered a stroke in 2013, but he bounced back and continued painting, although at a slower pace.

“He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met,” said filmmaker Ben Kanes, a former studio assistant. So interesting that Kanes is making a documentary titled The Last Old Master about him. “I don’t know if there’s ever been anyone like him,” he said.

No service is planned. Mohler hopes to schedule a tribute at a later date.



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