LeRoy Neiman (1921–2012)

Artist, Teacher, Illustrator, Chronicler, Celebrity, Philanthropist

Artist LeRoy Neiman was best known for illustrations that presented scenes of sports and entertainment and the people that brought those pastimes to life. Like the America of his times, from the start of his professional art career in the 1950s until his death in 2012, Neiman grew wealthy. Neiman, a child of the Great Depression, was frugal. Yet in one of his many paradoxes, he was enormously generous. In his later years, he established the LeRoy Neiman Foundation and donated nearly $20 million – a perhaps unprecedented amount for a living artist – to art institutions as well as to programs that helped disadvantaged young artists around the United States. Neiman he knew where he had come from and how he got to where he was, and he gave back.

In terms of Neiman’s place in American art, he was 27 years younger than Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) and seven years older than Andy Warhol (1928-1987). Rockwell came of age in an era when magazines were the most common national media in the country, and he proudly considered himself an illustrator rather than artist. In a style that honored the realism of the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Rockwell depicted telling and heart-warming moments from American small-town life. Warhol helped create a new genre of art that turned the common and the extraordinary in American culture – from soup cans to movie stars – into icons.

“I’ve zeroed in on what you would call action and excellence. … Everybody who does anything to try to succeed has to give the best of themselves, and art has made me pull the best out of myself.”

—Neiman in a 2008 interview with the Associated Press

Neiman worked both as an illustrator and as an artist whose paintings, prints, and drawings were shown in galleries and reproduced in numerous publications. He created illustrations for Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Harpers and dozens of other magazines, and exhibited his works at the Hammer Galleries in New York and the Franklin Bowles Gallery in San Francisco.

Neiman took the subjects of photographers, cartoonists, and 19th century engravers and brought them to 20th century life.  He used a palette knife to create lush, textured, and his often unmixed colors – vibrant  to some, ostentatious to others – made his canvases hum with energy.  He fused techniques of 1940s and 1950s action painting pioneered by Willem de Kooning and to the art of illustration and added elements of Impressionism and Expressionism.  His distinctive body of work and style chronicled American life as the country came into an era of affluence.  And his art appealed to people far beyond the walls of museums and avant garde galleries: it captured the attention and affection of people who were impassioned players in the American dream of toil, sweat, and success.

LeRoy Neiman was the son of Lydia Serline and her second of three husbands.  His father, Charles Runquist, abandoned the family when Neiman was five-years old.  He wound up with the last name of John Neiman, who stayed with the family for nine years.  

Neiman grew up in the hardscrabble, blue collar neighborhood of Frog Town, in St. Paul, MN, a neighborhood on the wrong side of the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks, which had been laid by many of Frog Town’s early residents.  He had a knack for drawing.  As a child, he sold posters advertising sales to local merchants for a nickel apiece.  He also picked up change drawing ink tattoos on schoolmates’ forearms.  

During World War II, Neiman served in the U.S. Army as a cook and painted sets for Red Cross shows and bawdy murals on mess hall walls.  For a period, he was AWOL and lived with an older woman in Eupen, Belgium but wound up with an honorable discharge.  

Following the war, Neiman studied briefly at St. Paul School of Art and then at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), completing his studies in 1950. In both cases, tuition came from the G.I. Bill, a grant that was later paid forward more than a thousand-fold.  At SAIC, in a class fraught with talent, some of his classmates included Robert Clark (who later changed his last name to Indiana) and Leon Golub. 

Neiman taught figure drawing as well as fashion illustration at the SAIC for ten years beginning in 1950 and entered paintings in regional competitions.  His 1953 Idle Boats won first prize for oil painting at the 1953 Twin City Show and was acquired by the Minneapolis Art Institute.  Later works that decade were exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in the Carnegie Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting.  

In 1954, while doing fashion illustrations for the Carson Pirie Scott department store chain, he met Hugh Hefner, then a writer for the department store who had just launched the men’s magazine, Playboy.  From its earliest days, the magazine featured nearly nude women, serious journalism, and fiction, including in serial form Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  Hefner commissioned an illustration from Neiman for a short story their first year together.  The illustration won the Chicago Art Directors Award, marking the start of what became a beautiful friendship.  

Playboy made the good life a reality for me and made it the subject matter of my paintings—not affluence and luxury, as such, but joie de vivre itself.”

—LeRoy Neiman, VIP Magazine, July 1962

Throughout the 1950s, Neiman still taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1957, he married Janet Byrne, a student at the school.  The same year, working for Playboy, Neiman created the Femlin, a female sprite or gremlin clothed in opera gloves, stockings, and high heels, who by turns was saucy and sexy and a champion of women’s rights.  For 15 years beginning in 1958, Neiman also wrote and illustrated a column, “Man at his Leisure,” which chronicled Neiman’s trips for Playboy to hundreds of locations throughout the world.  

Where the American-produced James Bond movies were part travelogue, offering glimpses of jet set locales from Alpine ski slopes to Mediterranean ports, Neiman took readers to the playgrounds of the global moneyed set, whether captains of industry or overlords of vice.  (Back home, Neiman sold to both, for cash, out of his studio.)   

Where the 1950s laid the foundation for success, in the 1960s Neiman worked furiously to cement his place as an illustrator and artist.  From 1961 to 1963 he lived in Paris and created works that captured the social season at Deauville, home of a famed racetrack and one of the most desirable French seaside resort towns.  He visited the French Rivera, Venice, and Rome and went back to the United States to do a series of paintings of the Indianapolis 500 and settle into his New York City studio.  

Later in the decade, he painted literally hundred major figures in the worlds of the arts, politics, and sports, perhaps none more frequently than Muhammad Ali, who became a fast, life-long friend.

Neiman grew famous thanks to television, and he demystified art in the process.  Beginning in 1972, Neiman was the official artist of five Olympiads.  On camera and viewed by tens of millions of people, Neiman sketched out and completed al fresco paintings of the action and competition. (He did the same during the broadcasts of the 1972 Bobby Fischer – Boris Spassky World Chess Championship, which brought the title to the United States for the first time in history.)  The television appearances turned Neiman into a media showman, with his expansive handlebar mustache and ever-present Cuban cigar.  

“I created LeRoy Neiman. Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I’m a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work.”

—LeRoy Neiman; www.asama.org

From the late 1960s on, Neiman was among the best-known artists in America, and he had a seemingly never ending string of commissions.  The Kirov and Bolshoi Ballet companies in Russia.  Artist-in-Residence of the New York Jets.  Chronicler of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Broadway sets and mural designs.  Album covers.  Women’s handbags.  Pre-fight sketches for the first Ali-Frazier bout for The New York Times Magazine.  Posters for hundreds of events, including the Newport Jazz Festival.  Official Artist of the Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986.  The Pebble Beach Golf Clubhouse.  Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta.  A safari in Kenya.  Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera.  A commission from the United Nations.  

“For an artist, watching a [Joe] Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure.”  

—LeRoy Neiman, 1972 

In 1996, Neiman and his wife, Janet Byrne Neiman, created a philanthropic foundation that would fund projects important to them both.  They started with a donation to Columbia University’s School of the Arts to create the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, a now internationally recognized printmaking studio open to students at Columbia and artists who were both emerging and established.  

Two years later, the LeRoy Neiman Center for Study of American Culture and Society opened at the University of California, Los Angeles, dedicated to looking at not only the visual arts but all aspects of American culture and life.  In 2005, LeRoy gave to his alma mater to create a LeRoy Neiman scholarship line and followed that donation with another in 2011 to construct the LeRoy Neiman Student Center.  

No less important to Neiman were at-risk students from urban centers.  Through his foundation, he funded the Arts Horizons LeRoy Neiman Art Center in New York, NY and the LeRoy Neiman Art Center for Youth, of the Good Tidings Foundation, in San Francisco, CA.  

By the end of his life, Neiman had visited five continents and chronicled his ascendant, dynamic times through thousands of paintings and drawings.  Part of his legacy and his love of art and generosity is found in the work carried out in colleges and universities and the community centers that give kids a safe place to learn and play.  

Another part is found in the homes of collectors throughout the world and in museums, auction catalogues, gallery shows, books and the internet, the result of decades of his own work and sweat, even if from mid-life on the sweat came in very comfortable circumstances.  Neiman brought illustration into the 20th century and adapted the genre to Modernism in its look and feel.  Neiman painted the titans and gladiators of American sport and entertainment, men and women who were models of success and achievement for people who thrilled to competition and saw themselves as warriors in the battle of life.  

“I’m a storyteller – only I tell my stories in a riot of color.  Painters have always told stories – martyrdoms, murders, battles, saints, and sinners – and that’s still what I do.”  

—LeRoy Neiman, All Told