Greyhounds by LeRoy Neiman
Greyhounds by LeRoy Neiman

Bois de Boulogne by LeRoy Neiman. Dated 1984. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
LeRoy Neiman, one of the 20th century’s most popular and well-known artists, is celebrated for his dynamic, brightly colored canvases that both captured and captivated America. His popularity stemmed not only from his highly unique painting style, but also from his subject matter that included celebrities, leisure activities and high-profile sporting events. Neiman’s work highlighted some of the most exciting moments in American pop culture from the latter half of the 20th century, and . He found both popular and commercial success, and today his works are highly collectible for their exuberant and colorful personalities.

Early Life and Artistic Beginnings

Born as LeRoy Runquist in 1921 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he took his stepfather’s name after his father abandoned the family. Neiman considered himself an illustrator from an early age, and he was highly adept at marketing himself as an artist from the start. He attended a Catholic primary school where he earned pocket money by convincing his schoolmates to let him give them “tattoos” drawn on their arms in ink during recess. As a teenager, he would illustrate signs for neighborhood stores advertising their merchandise and sell them for a nickel apiece. Around this time, he also began drawing portraits for extra money.
In 1942, during World War II, Neiman enlisted in the Army where he served as a cook. Even then, he found ways to keep creating art any way he could, painting sets for Red Cross shows and murals on mess hall walls. After an honorable discharge, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll first in the Saint Paul School of Art and then the Art Institute of Chicago. It was in Chicago where he truly came into his own as an artist, discovering the highly expressive and colorful illustration technique that would set him apart from his peers.

Greyhounds by LeRoy Neiman. Dated 1985. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
After graduation, he went on to teach figure drawing and fashion illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago through the 1950s. Also during this time, Neiman worked as a freelance illustrator for the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago. Quite unexpectedly, it was this job that would set the course for the rest of his life and career; it was there that he met his future wife, Janet Byrne, and his future employer, Hugh Hefner. Hefner was working as a copywriter at the department store before launching Playboy, and he asked Neiman to come aboard as an illustrator for the magazine — a partnership that would last more than 50 years.

Pop-Culture Phenomenon

During his time at Playboy, Neiman was able to establish himself as a world-renowned artist. He painted covers, illustrated articles and created a signature character for the publication called “The Femlin,” a sexy, spunky female sprite that wore little more than gloves and high heels. He wrote and illustrated a column for 15 years called “Man at His Leisure," which allowed him to travel the world to report on the leisure activities of wealthy playboys. Neiman spoke of his work at Playboy fondly, encapsulating the experience by stating, “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.”

Nude by LeRoy Neiman. Dated 1985. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Through his success at Playboy, Neiman expanded his horizons and illustrated some of the most popular entertainers and sports stars of the 20th century. Sports painting became Neiman’s niche. It was a largely unexplored genre when he began painting his energetic canvases depicting sports icons such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Joe Nameth, and the public responded positively to their colorful, familiar imagery. He was particularly talented at conveying the most dynamic elements of sporting events; his vigorous brushwork and high-energy color palette lent themselves well to the action. In fact, Jackson Pollock and his “action painting” were highly influential for the artist, and he utilized elements of Pollock’s painting style for his own work.

Rumble in the Jungle by LeRoy Neiman. Dated 1974. (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
As his renown grew, so did his commissions. He became the official artist for five different Olympic Games and artist-in-residence for the New York Jets. He did live painting demonstrations at Superbowls, Broadway shows, bullfights and even the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky World Chess Championship. One of his most high-profile commissions was for several of the Rocky films — he created paintings that appeared in the films and even made cameo appearances in Rocky III, IV, V and Rocky Balboa as a ring announcer.

Celebrity and Philanthropist

By the 1980s, Neiman had undoubtedly reached the heights of his career. While he continued to paint for the rest of his life, he also became an important philanthropist, giving back to the country and communities that had given him so much. In 1986 with the help of his wife, he started the LeRoy Neiman Foundation, an organization that funded and supported arts education in underprivileged schools and neighborhoods.
He also funded programs and scholarships at numerous colleges and universities around the country, including his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As a result, the school’s Neiman Center was dedicated to him in 2012; UCLA’s LeRoy Neiman Student Center was also named for him in 2011.
Throughout his life, the artist was honored with a number of awards, including five honorary doctorates and a lifetime achievement award from the University of Southern California. He was also inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame thanks to his contributions to the sport with his paintings. Unquestionably, his work helped to elevate the recognition and appreciation of some of the 20th century’s most important boxing matches.
Tragedy struck the artist in 2010 when he was forced to amputate his leg as the result of arterial insufficiency. He died just two years later in 2012, 15 days after his autobiography, All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs, was published on June 5.