LeRoy Neiman: Master of Many Arenas

Artist LeRoy Neiman’s career success likely went very far beyond his dreams. Born in Minnesota, he lived in Europe for a few years and then settled on the Upper West Side where he maintained his studio and apartment at Hotel des Artistes on West 67th Street.

Neiman was tall and big hearted, fun to have friend. He was often photographed dressed in the white coveralls he wore for painting. When he dressed up to go out, he was fond of witty touches; an interesting hat or beaded jewelry. His handlebar mustache could not be missed. A long thin Cuban cigar was usually pressed between his lips.

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Neiman was always working, sketching on any scrap of paper he could  find when not painting in his studio. One friend regrets that she absent-mindedly threw away a sketch done on a paper napkin.

He fully enjoyed life, as described in many media pieces about him and seen in YouTube videos. Most media coverage had noted the extraordinary success Neiman achieved painting professional athletes and sports events.

Just imagine the satisfaction of having a contract with the US Olympics as the official United States artist in residence for five years. One outcome was that his televised mural of the 1978 Olympic Games was seen by an estimated 170 million viewers.

More Upper West Side history

Neiman also demonstrated his talents during a 1970s Superbowl game during which his drawings of football players were transmitted electronically in real-time to TV viewers worldwide. His lush, vividly colored expressionist paintings captured the action and excitement of football, boxing, horse racing and many other sports. He also painted scenes from the jazz, casino, ballet and political worlds.

In an interview with The West Side TV Shopper, Neiman said he enjoyed eating in the neighborhood at Le Poulailler and La Cantina. His painting of Tavern on the Green has been widely reproduced.

Not only were his paintings enormously popular, but his serigraphs were and continue to command high prices. Neiman’s work is in the holdings of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Carnegie Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting, as well as in private collections.

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A WWII Army Veteran, Neiman went to art school in Minnesota, working as a faculty member at the Art School of The Art Institute of Chicago while also painting and exhibiting. But, Neiman’s path to worldwide recognition started soon after he met Hugh Hefner.

At the time, Hefner was a copywriter and Neiman worked as a freelance illustrator for a department store chain. Once Hefner started Playboy, he commissioned Neiman for work that extended for the next five decades. Among his other contributions was “Man at his Leisure,” a 15-year series of travel illustrations of exotic places. During this period when his career was really starting to take off, Neiman and Janet Bryne married in 1957.

“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,” is how Neiman described the impact of his ongoing connection with Playboy in an interview with VIP Magazine in July 1962.

Neiman enjoyed talking and even joking around with sports heroes like Muhammad Ali. Ali famously asked Neiman to sketch him in a darkened room and then told Neiman that his ability to meet this challenge convinced him of his artistic talent.

Neiman died in 2012. He and his wife were generous philanthropists. The LeRoy Neiman Foundation funds programs supporting and advancing arts education such as the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, the LeRoy Neiman Center for Study of American Culture and Society at UCLA, and a UCLA LeRoy Neiman scholarship.

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Featured image c/o Igel B TyMaHe

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