The first time I saw a LeRoy Neiman painting was in a television commercial. Of this, I am sure, even if I cannot remember the portrait being advertised or how much it was being sold for or even why it was being hawked on cable at that particular moment. It may have been a rendering of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and I may have seen the ad during an episode of Roy Firestone’s Up Close, or I may be conflating my memories, since I believe Neiman often appeared on ESPN during the network’s Australian Rules Football epoch.
Neiman, who died this week at the age of 91, was the most successful sports portraitist of his era, in part because he was the only noted sports portraitist of his era. He was prolific and wildly rich (in a 1985 Sports Illustrated profile, Franz Lidz estimated that Neiman grossed more than $10 million a year — his painting of the 1975 Kentucky Derby was priced at $500,000) and critically reviled. He “makes art for people who don’t like art,” one critic said; “What Howard Johnson’s is to the taste buds, LeRoy Neiman is to the eyes,” a magazine designer said. His paintings are brightly colored and impressionistic and easily appreciated by the masses of Americans who are not patrons of the Metropolitan Museum and who think Mark Rothko was great in The Avengers. His work is as ubiquitous on the bathroom walls of Midwestern sports bars as Monet’s water lilies are on the walls of women’s dorms at East Coast universities.