Filed Under:

The Man Who Painted Sport, Bright and Beautiful

Play associated audio

Framed in my library is a sketch that LeRoy Neiman dashed off of me on the back of a menu, when he was watching me speak several years ago. LeRoy, who died the other day, was somewhat better known for another sketch, the "nymphette" that has appeared in Playboy since 1955 — but, of course, he's ever famous for simply being our most celebrated sports artist.

This is hardly to say he was acclaimed. Rather, he was dismissed as a garish showoff, who was all about colors and celebrity — more of a Peter Max, without any of the grace or subtlety of Norman Rockwell, whom he was often popularly compared to.

Unschooled sports fans paid well for Neiman canvases, though, and LeRoy appeared unbothered by the unrelenting criticism.

Part of the professional disdain was no doubt manifested by envy — his television ubiquity and his illustrious physical recognition, highlighted by that great, sweeping 19th century mustache.

One bitter cold night in Manhattan, LeRoy found himself in the wrong part of town with no cabs in sight. He was, as was his winter wont, wearing his full-length mink coat, when he realized he was about to be set upon by three thugs. When he turned to face them, though, one cried out, "You're the guy who paints all the sports stars," and rather than mug him, they found him a cab.

Personally, though, LeRoy was not at all flamboyant, but courteous, gentle and wonderfully philanthropic. Maybe it wasn't great art that he sold, but it ended up funding great art schools. His studio, just off Central Park, was a huge aircraft hangar of a room, but it was a warm, welcoming place.

It's odd that sport, so gritty and vivid, so naturally celebrating the best of the human form, has not produced an accepted master since George Bellows fashioned his boxing paintings a century ago. Ironically, just now, as Neiman passes on, a Bellows exhibit is showcased at the National Gallery in Washington.

At the National Art Museum of Sport in Indianapolis, there are many fairly recent glorious works, but none are so well-regarded as "Stag at Sharkey's," which Bellows painted back in 1909 — lurid and dark and mean.

But Neimans sold. Maybe we simply don't want to display sports art that shows the squalid side. After all, the iconic athletic piece remains the discus thrower, which was carved 2,500 years ago. It is clean and graceful an elegant — a male Venus de Milo.

So, criticize LeRoy Neiman for making bright beauty of sport, but it seems what we prefer.

And as the simple sketch he did of me fades, I'll prize it still — not for its craft or its value, but for the kind, generous man who chose to see sport, above a handlebar, as a razzle-dazzle of glory.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Tampa Hosts Bollywood's Biggest Stars At Annual Awards Show

India's Bollywood film industry is increasingly reaching a world-wide audience. To highlight the international appeal, the industry holds its annual awards ceremony every year outside of India.
NPR

Got My Goat? Vermont Farms Put Fresh Meat On Refugee Tables

Americans don't eat much barbecued goat, but the meat is a mainstay in many African, Asian and Caribbean diets. In Vermont, farmers raise for refugees and immigrants, with hopes to mainstream it.
WAMU 88.5

On National Mall, Native Americans Protest Keystone XL Pipeline

Native Americans from across the country are visiting Washington this week to protest the construction of a controversial pipeline in the Midwest.
NPR

Life Outside The Fast Lane: Startups Wary Of Web Traffic Plan

The Federal Communications Commission's proposal would let Web companies pay for faster access. But entrepreneurs, like Reddit's co-founder, are wondering how they would have fared with such rules.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.