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. 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, and “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.
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