By Carleton Varney- Special to the Palm Beach Daily News
I was so saddened to learn last week of the death of painter Ralph Wolfe Cowan, a friend who was well-known to many a Palm Beacher for his lavish portraits.
Mr. Cowan, who died at 86 Sept. 4 in West Palm Beach, was prolific, working on canvas after canvas during his lifetime. His color and sepia portraits captured some of the world’s most powerful and popular personas — Johnny Mathis, Debbie Reynolds and royal families, including the Sultan of Brunei and Monaco’s Princess Grace, Prince Rainier and Prince Albert.
He was the portrait painter of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, and also painted images of President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan, as well as other members of presidential families. I recall a handsome portrait of first lady Rosalynn and President Jimmy Carter, which hung on the staircase walls of the Marcoses’ New York residence on 66th Street.
Ralph also did portraits of those in Palm Beach society, including a famous one of President Donald Trump, but painted long before he moved into the White House. I’m sure many of you have seen it: He is wearing a white V-neck tennis sweater edged in red and royal blue. The painting now hangs in the bar at Mar-a-Lago.
I worked with Ralph on a number of projects. Some years ago for the President Parlor at The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Ralph painted a full-length portrait of Princess Grace. The portrait is one of two in existence, as it is a replica of the original he painted for Prince Rainier. That one hangs in the pink palace in Monte Carlo.
But Ralph, who worked closely with his associate and business manager Steve Mohler, was more than just an artist to be remembered for his client list. He was born to elegance in Virginia’s horse country, where he developed his fine manners and his ability to chat with folks anywhere about anything — often about places where he had traveled, all over the world.
He was a man with an appreciation for opulence, who loved decorating and mixing periods of furnishings with glamorous fabrics and accessories. Over-draperies and crystal chandeliers were a part of his everyday thinking.
Ralph was known as a perfect gentleman, and he was frequently invited to society parties and benefits all over the world, where he often appeared in his perfectly pressed blue blazer, sometimes adorned with medals he received from various sultans or princesses. He loved the whirl of Palm Beach life and enjoyed his home and pool just off Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach. I always smiled when I visited the Cowan property, because out front there was always a stretch limousine, one that the artist used for his arrivals at parties.
He loved to make people happy, and his generosity to others was reflected in his portraits. He saw beauty in the faces of all who posed for one of his works — and he made sure his paintings always heightened the beauty he perceived. No wonder his subjects loved their portraits — and I certainly never met anyone who complained about his interpretation.