Celebrating the happy art of Vera Neumann

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

Cats and Dogs by Vera Neumann (1907-1993), 1963. Photograph by Steven Meckler, courtesy of Susan Seid.

For many women with a chic and sporty fashion sensibility, a Vera Neumann silk scarf—or a dozen of them—has long been a wardrobe essential. And if you wanted Neumann’s upbeat, offbeat artistry on more than what you wore, you could find it on sheets, towels, tablecloths, upholstery, and housewares of every kind. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, from 1942 until her death in 1993, Neumann parlayed a quirky, curious eye and a talent for painting into a textile design and licensing empire—her work instantly recognizable by her cursive Vera signature and its usual companion, a ladybug. 

Meadow Fern, c. 1973. Photograph courtesy of Susan Seid.

The Museum of Arts and Design in New York pays tribute to Neumann’s achievement in a current exhibition entitled Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann. Born Vera Salaff in 1907 in Stamford, Connecticut, daughter of Russian immigrants, she displayed artistic talent as a child and would eventually grow up to study art at the Cooper Union in New York. She followed that with studies at Manhattan’s Traphagen School of Fashion, her entrée into the couture world. But work as an illustrator in the garment industry dissatisfied her, particularly when she was asked to knock off the work of others. Her husband, George Neumann, an advertising executive, suggested she use her paintings as source material for textiles. They started a small silkscreen business in their studio apartment in 1942, at first printing placemats and napkins. By 1972, her scarves were being sold in twenty thousand stores. Her artwork would be licensed for scores of products that ranged from Burlington bedlinens to Mikasa china.

Vera painting in her office, c. 1970.

A prolific painter, her motifs included abstracts and geometrics, and her subjects everything from butterflies and birdcages to fish, cityscapes, and a smiling sun. Above all there were botanicals: foliage, ferns, herbs, vegetables, and flowers of all kinds. To celebrate this body of Neumann’s work, starting in October the Tucson Botanical Garden will present an exhibition of some fifty of Vera’s original paintings, along with associated tours and lectures.

Vera Paints a Scarf: The Art and Design of Vera Neumann • Museum of Arts and Design, New York • to January 26, 2020 • madmuseum.org

Vera Paints a Garden • Tucson Botanical Garden • October 12 to Jan­uary 5, 2020 • tucsonbotanical.org