Interviews

Trump l’oeil: A Conversation with the Donald’s Portrait Painter

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, "The Entrepreneur" (2002) (courtesy the artist)
Ralph Wolfe Cowan, “The Entrepreneur” (2002) (image courtesy the artist)

Donald Trump doesn’t like to appear sketchy. For years, an oil sketch portrait of him that he commissioned artist Ralph Wolfe Cowan to paint in 1987 befuddled the billionaire, who believed the finished work to be incomplete: Cowan had intentionally left out details from one of the painted figure’s hands. Although initially created as preliminary studies, oil sketches came to be appreciated by many artists — from Delacroix to Francis Bacon — who deliberately executed works that seemed unfinished. Upset that his left hand to him appeared incomplete, however, Trump nagged Cowan for 15 years to touch it up until the painter gave in, as the Daily News first reported.

Titled “The Entrepreneur,” the portrait currently hangs in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago hotel in Palm Beach Florida, where Cowan had met Trump years ago and asked whether he could paint him. The result of their agreement shows the Donald looking quite different from the aspiring politician we know today: backed by a sun-streaked landscape, the younger version of America’s angriest man is transformed into a WASPy country club fashion plate while throwing the viewer a coy glance.

Ralph Wolfe Cowan, "The Entrepreneur" (1987) (courtesy Shawn Slattery) (click to enlarge)
Ralph Wolfe Cowan, “The Entrepreneur” (1987) (courtesy Shawn Slattery) (click to enlarge)

“I told him he always was photographed in a blue suit and red tie,” Cowan told Hyperallergic, “and I said, ‘That’s your New York look.’ I wanted to do a Palm Beach look and a sun tan…And he looked really good, and I painted his hips very narrow.”

Trump however, who paid Cowan $24,000 in exchange for this gem, remained upset over the artistic decision to keep his left hand unfinished, which was a detail the painter liked to include in many of his commissions. But whenever the two met — while at Mar-a-Lago, at the local mall, and at beauty pageants they were judging, as Cowan said — Trump brought up the unpainted paw every time.

“He kept saying, ‘When are you going to finish the painting?'” Cowan said. “And I kept explaining to him, ‘You bought an oil sketch.’ And he didn’t get it when I kept saying it that way.”

Only after Trump offered to tack on an additional $3,000 did Cowan finally agree to color in additional detail. He has also since removed oil sketches from his list of possible styles from which his clients may choose. Cowan says he is not upset about the change, and he holds no grudges — and he even voted for Trump earlier this week.

“I don’t like Republicans, and I don’t like any of the Democrats,” Cowan said. “When all these people started picking on [Trump] and saying bad things about him, I thought they went too far. He just has his own way of speaking … the whole Republican party is breaking up, and all of those fools and old timers are just despicable.”

One of those memorable exchanges he recalled was Rubio’s “small hands” comment; for those trying to figure out if young Trump did indeed live up to the claim, Cowan has a few words of clarification.

“I want to say his hands are in direct proportion to the size of his body so it all works together,” he said. “They’re not smaller than they should be — and I know, because I did the painting … You understand that, right?”

Rather than dwell on those words, we will instead recommend that Trump take time out of his busy schedule of tweeting or eating what many specialists say is the worst kind of steak and pay a visit to the newly opened Met Breuer to discover that “unfinished” can be quite impressive.

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