Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS – Painter and sketch artist LeRoy Neiman, who died Wednesday, is remembered in New Orleans not just for his paintings of sports figures and celebrities, but for his connections to Carnival, as the artist behind a 2002 Rex proclamation and a major donor whose generosity helped launch the krewe’s charitable foundation.
Neiman, who died in New York at age 91, first became connected to the Rex organization through Dr. Ronald French, who reigned as King of Carnival in 2007.
The connection was purely coincidental at first, French said.
French and his wife, a former Queen of Carnival, Flora Fenner French, spotted Neiman dining in a New York restaurant about 12 years ago.
"I'd always thought that he should do a painting on the New Orleans Mardi Gras," Dr. French said by phone Wednesday.
French considered approaching Neiman at the restaurant, but wrote him a letter instead. A week or so later, he got a phone call from the artist.
"He said he had always wanted to do something on Mardi Gras. He'd done Carnival in Venice and in Rio, but never New Orleans," French said.
The doctor invited his new friend to ride in the Rex parade, and sketch during the trip. French recalled that Neiman, at first, was less than impressed with the street parades he saw, but became enamored with the scene at several Carnival balls.
"He began his career as a fashion illustrator, so he loved seeing the costumes, particularly at the balls," French said.
Neiman rode with French in the Rex parade, sketching along the way.
"It was an unforgettable experience," Neiman told The Times-Picayune’s John Pope in 2007. "I kept taking my hood off, and Dr. French kept putting it back on, saying, 'You can't show your face.' "
"He was overcome by it all," French said. "He never had more fun in his life."
That 2001 Fat Tuesday ride helped inspire the fanciful Rex proclamation the next year, titled “Mardi Gras Parade,” which Neiman unveiled at a ceremony at the Presbytere on Jackson Square.
The painting depicts a Rex parade, complete with the familiar King’s float, Boeuf Gras and Jester float, moving through a Fat Tuesday crowd.
French said that Neiman invited him and his family to see the original painting. French's son pointed out two things missing - a woman baring her flesh for beads, and an image of the artist himself. Neiman later added both to the work.
Neiman also published a book of watercolor paintings of Carnival, French said.
After Hurricane Katrina, Neiman would make an even more meaningful contribution to the city, with a major donation that helped launch Rex’s Pro Bono Publico Foundation.
French said that Neiman was moved to help the city with its recovery, having survived the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
Neiman donated 75 signed silk-screen prints of his Rex proclamation. Proceeds from their sale raised close to $300,000 for the foundation in its initial stages. Since Hurricane Katrina, the foundation has raised thousands of dollars for local charities, including charter schools.
As a painter best known for his work featuring sports figures, Neiman was the official painter of five Olympiads. In 1972, he sketched the world chess tournament between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, Iceland, for a live television audience. He also produced live drawings of the Olympics for TV and was the official computer artist of the Super Bowl for CBS.
He was also a contributing artist at Playboy magazine for many years. Neiman also was a portraitist who captured some of the world's most iconic figures, Frank Sinatra, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth among them, in a style that conveyed their public image.
-- With reporting by Associated Press