Elvis Presley
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More about Elvis Presley

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In his interview with Smithsonian curator Warren Perry, the late portraitist Ralph Wolfe Cowan recalls crossing paths with one Elvis Aaron Presley,  in the glitzy corridors of the Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Realizing that portraiture was a good way to pay the bills, Cowan, a recently divorced military veteran with two children, set up his studio at Caesar's Palace. He ignored advice to find himself an apartment close to the Strip, and opted to live and work in the hotel itself, because, he said, all the money he made from his portraits was going back to the casino anyway. He wanted to be in the middle of it all, saying "You gotta be around people who can afford you, all the time." Cowan did at least seven portraits of Elvis, including a copy of this one that hangs in Graceland. Another portrait, showing the singer in a white jumpsuit with his chest exposed, was purchased by hotel kingpin Steve Wynn for $85,000.

Hanging out with the "Rat Pack" and his good friend, the great singer Johnny Mathis, brought Cowan closer to the orbit of Elvis. One day, Mathis told Cowan he just got a call: Elvis liked the portrait Cowan had done for Mathis's Heavenly album cover. Because their livelihoods depend on their distinctness from one another, Cowan claims, "Singers don't really like each other all that much, although they pretend to," but Mathis hooked him up with Elvis, who asked the painter to do a life-sized nude of him. "Do you know what that'd be worth today?" the business-savvy Cowan asks, before adding, "I don't know if they could hang it here, in the National Portrait Gallery." It would have made a great companion piece to Cowan's own nude self-portrait from decades earlier. Cowan says, euphemistically, that he made jokes about "that thing," until finally the singer relented and offered to let Cowan choose his outfit. Cowan told him that "superstars wear white," and later claimed that this was the reason that Elvis started rocking his famous white suits with the high collars. The nude never happened. 

When the MGM auctioned Elvis's memorabilia, someone paid $3,500 for the $10,000 check Elvis had given Cowan for that first painting. Elvis liked that painting so much, he carried it home before the paint was dry.

Here's a final excerpt from Cowan's bottomless archive of cool stories: the singer's widow, Priscilla Presley, "called me one day…to let me know how upset she was that one of the more crazy fans had put her hand on the crotch of my Elvis painting and swore it healed her arthritis." 



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  2. Aydlette, Larry. "The Last of the Portrait Painters." Palm Beach Post, 2016,
  3. "Elvis Portrait?" Elvis Collectors, May 8, 2004,
  4. "Elvis Presley." Google Arts and Culture,
  5. Pasulka, Nicole. "Palm Beach van Dyck." The Oxford American, May 2, 2017,
  6. Perry, Warren. "One Life—Echoes of Elvis." YouTube Video, 7:32, Feb. 24, 2010,
  7. Perry, Warren. "Portrait of Elvis Presley by Ralph Wolfe Cowan." Smithsonian,