United States • 1921−2012

Biography and information

LeRoy Neiman (8 June 1921, St. Paul, MN, USA — 20 June 2012, New York, NY, USA) was a famous American artist, illustrator, and a renowned philanthropist. He taught at the Institute of Art in Chicago and received an honorary professor of arts degree from Columbia University.

Peculiar features of LeRoy Neiman’s art. LeRoy Neiman’s art worked in the improvisational sketching style with rich and aggressive palette, which allows us to categorize the artist as a Neo-Expressionist.

Famous pictures of LeRoy Neiman: Big Band, Muhammad Ali: Athlete of the Century, Rocky Balboa.

LeRoy Neiman is the same age as the American Dream. By the time when this term migrated from the historical treatise by James Adams, “Epic of America”, into colloquial use, LeRoy was 10. His artistic career began in the post-war years. After recovering from the Great Depression, America got muscled, richer, and filled with oil, ambitions, confidence and power. LeRoy Neiman grew rich along with it. You will not find poignant chapters about hunger days and rehabilitation centres in the artist’s biography - only an inexorable movement towards money, success, and recognition.

Of course, they envied him. When Neiman died at the age of 91, the author of the New York Times obituary wrote: “Mr. Neiman was not an artist of interest of anyone in the world of serious art.” However, most of the public loved LeRoy Neiman. For his optimistic palette and energy emanating from his canvases. For democratic nature of his subjects and irrepressible thirst for life. For his dandy moustache. For Neiman was not only the age-mate of the American Dream, but also its embodiment.

Rich Man, Poor Man
LeRoy Neiman grew up in Frogtown, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. On the wrong side of the Burlington Northern Railroad, he said. Those were the poor blocks with railway workers, builders, blue collars, where every cent was earned very hard. LeRoy’s biological father left the family shortly after his birth, and his stepfather, John Neiman, raised him. The Neimans did not bathe in luxury, to put it mildly. However, already as a teenager, LeRoy knew how to make a nickel or two.
He drew signboards for local grocers for five cents apiece, sometimes added a shopkeeper’s portrait to turkeys, fish, and bread. In addition, for a modest fee, Neiman did fake tattoos on the forearms of his classmates, mostly of a very dirty nature. The teachers were less than thrilled with their content, but paid tribute to their forms — no one doubted that the guy had talent. And if it was necessary to arrange, for example, a stage for a school drama club performance, strict mentors went hat in hand to the young ruffian.

Saving Private Neiman
In 1942, Neiman, who came of age, went to fight to Europe. For some time, he served as a cook and first of all, he painted the walls of the soldiers’ canteen with the same frivolous subjects — fellow soldiers were grateful to him not only for the bread, but also for the circuses.

Of course, World War II was not an easy walk with an easel under his arm. In his memoirs that were published shortly before his death, Neiman recalled the broken London streets: “It’s as if the nightmares by Hieronymus Bosch came to life in reality”. He recalled the the soldiers dying under the fire of “friendly” artillery in the bloody confusion of battles. He recalled condoms they were given on the eve of the Normandy landing. This was a very practical solution: condoms had to be pulled over the barrels so that the sand and water did not spoil the weapon. But of course, everyone was joking recklessly, realizing that they might never have an opportunity to use the “equipment” for its intended purpose.

The war did not make Neiman an angry man — he managed to retain both his sense of humour and optimistic view of the world order. In an interview, he said more than once that it was the horrors of war that he owed everything he had. During the war, LeRoy Neiman realized to the full extent how fragile and fleeting human life was and how stupid it would be to live it, doing an unloved business. Now he knew exactly that he wanted to paint and nothing else.

Beginning of a wonderful friendship
Upon his return home as a winner, LeRoy Neiman received a veteran scholarship. He graduated from the School of Art and Design at the Art Institute in Chicago (where he later taught for 10 years). In 1954, Neiman met a young publisher who invited him to illustrate his magazine. The publisher was Hugh Hefner and the magazine was called Playboy. This proposal was the beginning of a wonderful friendship and cooperation, which lasted for more than half a century and made LeRoy Neiman truly famous. Playboy would hardly be what it is without LeRoy Neiman. Today this cult magazine just can’t do without his sketches, illustrations for the stories by Bradbury or Updike, without his travel notes written in the most exotic and alluring corners of the globe. And, of course, without his beauties, who have not aged at all in 50 years and still do not wear much clothes.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
LeRoy Neiman kept up with everything. From the African safari, he flew straight to some important concert, from the university, he got into prime-time television. They saw his luxurious moustache and inevitable Cuban cigar on the streets of New York and in Las Vegas casinos, at fashion catwalks and racetracks. He was omnipresent and tireless. LeRoy Neiman painted Frank Sinatra and elephants, Paris and Harlem, bridges, fire hydrants, cooks, vagabonds and Absolute vodka. But the main place in his work has always been occupied by sports — LeRoy Neiman collaborated with major sports magazines and was the official artist of five Olympics. Like no one else, he knew how to convey the movement, pulse and nerve of a sports duel, even if the duel took place at the chessboard.

Sport was ideal nature for him. Indeed, it perfectly matched his performing style — swift and bright, as if a huge firecracker had exploded in a paint warehouse.

People’s Artist
As for the critics, LeRoy Neiman made them pretty nervous. They wrote that Neiman was “probably the worst artist to ever achieve this level of fame and fortune”, and his paintings were called “nasty copies of Associated Press photographs”. In the “world of serious art”, LeRoy Neiman was treated as an illustrator in a rather dismissive sense. Neiman did not lose heart — after all, his work was present not only in Playboy or Sports Illustrated, but also in permanent exhibitions at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art or the Hermitage. Like another American “magazine” icon, Norman Rockwell, Neiman saw nothing shameful in the work of an illustrator.

For all the indefatigability of his nature, LeRoy Neiman was a rather modest person. He was rich, but he did not flaunt his money. He was constantly surrounded by movie stars and Playboy models, but was married only once and lived with his wife Janet Byrne-Neiman for 55 years, until his death. In his New York house (by the way, Norman Rockwell once lived there), there were no grottoes, underwater bars or helipads. He was short-lived with Muhammad Ali and Frank Sinatra. But, according to his friends, he was never happier than at the moments when he was recognized on the street, slapped on the shoulder, and called from a passing car. He valued his reputation of a “popular”, understandable artist and cultivated this image in every possible way.

LeRoy Neiman was also known for his charitable activities. With half a dozen foundations and educational centres that bear his name, he donated about five million to the Art Institute in Chicago alone. Neiman always remembered where he came from and always paid back his debts.

He more than paid off one of them to his peer, the American Dream. It was sympathetic to him, and Neiman brought it back to its original meaning, discredited by alarmists like Faulkner or Hunter S. Thompson. By his own example, LeRoy Neiman proved that an enviable, luxurious and interesting life can also be dignified. Whatever they think of him in the “world of serious art”.

Written by Andrii Zymogliadov