He was born and raised in St. Paul Minnesota so how is LeRoy Neiman a Sports legend of the ‘Ville? Well, this is the only exception I’ve ever made in regards to being initially from the Derby City, however when one thinks about the pageantry and art surrounding the Derby itself so often we remember the fast paced strokes of the modern American painter.
The world lost Nieman a month ago however his signature style captured the excitement, joy, and tragedy of modern sport so well his name has become synonymous with American athletics.
I knew Nieman’s work before I knew his name like so many, I knew of his iconic paintings of the Kentucky Derby and the Valhalla Golf Course before I knew who he was: a man with a passion for not just art, not just sport, but the American way of life.
He was no stranger to the city of Louisville, for that matter he was no stranger to the heartland of America but more than that the heartland of the world, one can see that with his Olympic paintings through the years.
More than that his work has been seen in films like Rocky and in a number of publications, his theory on art was simplistic but to the point which is why I honor him as a sports legend of not just the ‘Ville but of the world. His thoughts on the art community, his critics and retractors, and the many that loved his work could best be summed up in this observer’s opinion in a comment he made in 1972, “For an artist, watching a (Joe) Namath throw a football or a Willie Mays hit a baseball is an experience far more overpowering than painting a beautiful woman or leading political figure,” and maybe that’s just why all cultures need their sports heroes; it doesn’t matter the sport every culture has them and maybe it goes back to that experience. Perhaps that’s why sport is so engrained in our society as a whole.
Neiman was 91 when he passed in New York.
Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated