Elvis in The Smithsonian

This is a post from 2009. It is one of the more serious efforts I have produced for ElvisBlog.   Hopefully, you will find it interesting to read as we continue to shelter-at-home.

 

Did you know you could find Elvis in the Smithsonian Institution?  You can, if you check out the National Portrait Gallery’s “Bravo” exhibition.  Here’s a group of Smithsonian visitors looking at the oil painting of Elvis that hangs there.

As with just about everything else involving Elvis, this brings up an interesting story.  The artist who painted the Elvis portrait is Ralph Wolfe Cowan, who, according to several websites, is considered the number one portrait painter in the world.  He has been recognized for painting more reigning monarchs and world leaders than any other painter in history.  His work includes portraits of four US Presidents: Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Reagan.  So, the stature of the artist certainly had a lot to do with the National Portrait Gallery selecting this particular painting.

However, this is not the first painting Ralph Wolfe Cowan did of Elvis.  Back in 1962, Mr. Cowan was selected to open the first portrait-painting studio at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.  Elvis was staying nearby at the Aladdin Hotel when he learned about the studio.  He sought out Mr. Cowan and commissioned a portrait at a cost of $10,000.  (Editor’s note: $85,000 in today’s money) Mr. Cowan started sketching on a 48-inch round canvas the very first night.

However, Elvis was very impressed with the album cover titled Heavenly that Cowan had created for Johnny Mathis.  Elvis decided he wanted a similar full-length portrait of himself and asked Mr. Cowan to start over.

The result was a painting that is now familiar to all Elvis fans.  Elvis loved it.  According to Mr. Cowan, “Elvis came by and personally carried the four-foot by seven-foot painting across the street to his room at the Aladdin.” 

This painting now embellishes the main wall at the Graceland Trophy Room.  The prominent gold hue of the portrait is a great compliment to the display of hundreds of Elvis’ gold records.  Mr. Cowan’s full-length masterpiece was the only portrait Elvis ever allowed to hang in Graceland.  Over the years, Priscilla and others would refer to the painting as “Heavenly Elvis.”  Here’s an interesting piece of trivia:  During the 1999 Archives of Graceland auction of Elvis memorabilia at the MGM Grand, somebody paid $3,500 for the check that Elvis wrote to pay for the painting.

Mr. Cowan astutely saved his original round sketch.  He has said, “After Elvis died…I was able to restore and repair the circular Elvis portrait.  As you can see, I added the red shirt and blue sky to make it different from the Graceland painting… I’ve heard from clients who have seen the portrait hanging in the National Portrait Gallery that it gets great attention.”  Mr. Cowan has referred to this painting as “Loving Elvis.”

In 1969, Ralph Wolfe Cowan created a third Elvis painting he titled “Coming Home Elvis.”   It was also part of the Archives of Graceland auction and sold for $45,000.

 

Mr. Cowan has painted at least three other Elvis portraits, and they are now offered at the upcoming The Elvis Presley Collection presented by the auction firm Gotta-Have-Rock-and-Roll on March 16-25.  All have a minimum bid of $25,000 and are projected to bring $35-45,000.  There is “Praying Elvis” depicting him in the famous American Eagle jumpsuit.

 

Also “Hound Dog Christmas” where Elvis is in a Santa suit and holds a hound dog puppy.

 

Certainly the most unusual Ralph Wolfe Cowan portrait of Elvis is “Elvis Presley Pink Cadillac.”  The painting is framed by an actual car door painted pink.

 

So, check out www.gottahaverockandroll.com and put in your bid on an Elvis painting by the number one portrait painter in the world.  Or, if you don’t have $45,000 to spare, go to the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian and see one there.

©  2009    Philip R Arnold, Original Elvis Blogmeister    All Rights Reserved 

 

Footnote # 1:  I was curious to see if Elvis’ portrait still hangs in the Bravo Exhibition at the Smithsonian.  Yes, it does.

View of the Bravo exhibition

 

Footnote #2:  The “Elvis in a Pink Cadillac” did not sell at the 2009 auction.  No one thought it was worth the $25,000 minimum bid. It showed up for auction again in 2012, this time called “Cruising Elvis,” perhaps because it was revealed the door actually came from a Ford Falcon. It had a minimum bid of $2,000. I think they could have sold it for more by offering just the painting and ditching the stupid pink car door.

What do you think?

9 responses to “Elvis in The Smithsonian

  1. love them all!!!

    • Hi Mariel. Thanks you. There a bunch of good posts in the ElvisBlog archives that you’ll get to see this year.

      Phil

  2. I remember being in Memphis on one of my trips and this painting was highlighted, there were greeting cards sold with these images depicted on them. I think the artist Mr. Cowan might have been there as a guest, but it is so very long ago, I cannot say for sure (many years and many trips ago). Interesting post!

    • Hi Diana. Your comments share some interesting stuff for the other readers. Thank you for commenting.

      Phil

  3. Karen Middleton

    Nice painting. Don’t like the brown eyes in cruising Elvis. Love all the other paintings. That guy has talent.

  4. Hi Phil, I have always loved this painting, but also thought it odd about the wrong eye color.
    Thanks for a great re-post.
    Carol

  5. Hi Phil, I’m wondering why, in Cruising Elvis, he chose to change Elvis’ beautiful blue eyes to brown. It reminds me of that hideous picture they used for The Searcher. It must be the one and only bad photograph ever taken of Elvis, and then they changed his eyes to brown to make it worse. What’s up with that?

    • Hi Katgirlblue: Nice catch. I completely missed the eye color. And I can’t imagine why the artist did that.

      Phil

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