LeRoy Neiman, the prolific artist whose dynamically colored paintings and sketches celebrated heroic figures of sports, entertainment and the good life, died Wednesday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, his publicist confirmed to PEOPLE. He was 91.
“His wife [of more than 50 years] Janet and some loved ones were at his bedside,” the rep said.
Cutting an eye-catching figure with his wide mustache and long cigar, Neiman was a larger-than-life yet approachable figure who epitomized the magazine with which he had a long association, Playboy – both in his personal style and that of his art.
Born LeRoy Runquist in St. Paul, Minn. (Neiman was his stepfather’s name), the aspiring artist began his career in Catholic school, drawing ink tattoos on the arms of his fellow students. Drafted into World War II, he served as a cook in mess halls he decorated with his murals.
After studying and then teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he began his distinctive style by using quick brush strokes with the enamel paint that was being tossed out by a building janitor, reports The New York Times.
The Playboy association began in the mid-’50s, when Hugh Hefner’s magazine was still new and the two men met in Chicago. Once the publisher saw Neiman’s canvases with their energetic depictions of boxers and nightlife denizens, a professional marriage was born.
Not only did Neiman go on globe-trotting expeditions for the magazine – he covered many an Olympic game – but he also devised the “Femlin,” the barely dressed cartoon figure who populated the Party Jokes page.
“I’ve had a lucky life,” Neiman told the AP in 2008. “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.”
Even so, like the fantasy artist Thomas Kincaid, who died this past May, Neiman’s bank account was much larger than his critical reputation. (So large, in fact, that he was a generous benefactor to arts groups and schools, including a 1995 donation of $6 million to Columbia University’s School of the Arts to endow the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, according to The Times).
Not that critical disdain seemed to rankle Neiman. “I can easily ignore my detractors and feel the people who respond favorably,” he told the AP.
In terms of commercial popularity, says The Times, Neiman ranked along with Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses and Andrew Wyeth.