It is with great sadness that I inform you of the passing of Jimmy.

(June15,1938-October 14, 2021)
Renowned American portrait artist James Louis “Jimmy” Mathewuse passed away peacefully on
Thursday night, October 14, 2021. He was 83. 

Jimmy’s successful and extraordinary talent was seen and appreciated over many decades in a unique way by millions of admirers throughout the world. 

As one of the New York publishing houses’ favorite book cover illustrators, Mathewuse became the preferred artist to create more than 250 covers for the “Sweet Valley High” and “Sweet Valley Twins” young-adult romance series translated into many languages and sold worldwide. Since he started painting book covers in 1976, Jimmy was commissioned to paint more than 400 images for publishing houses including Dell, Ace, Bantam, And Warner Pocketbooks which graced the covers of all genres from Westerns (“the John Wayne story”) to thrillers (“Time after Time”) to romance (“Songbird”) to adventure (“Warlord of Cathay”) to mainstream novels by Taylor Caldwell (“The Strong City”) and mystery (“Nancy Drew and Hardy Brothers Mysteries”)

Unlike his boyhood hero Norman Rockwell, whose style of painting was also from photographs rather than live models, Jimmy preferred to work with the pastel medium. He recognized early that elaborate oil paintings took much longer to produce and sometimes sat for years waiting to sell in a single gallery. Instead, his cover paintings only took several weeks for him to complete, and the reward was financially lucrative from the many hundreds of assignments that came his way from the publishing houses. He once confessed that the anonymity of book cover work “is a tad frustrating but I’m in competition with all these other books on the stands. I’m not sitting alone in some gallery with these one-man shows.”

Jimmy was born in Tampa on June 15, 1938, to Louis and Alma (McDuffy) Mathewuse. His father was a rough-and-tumble stevedore working on the docks in Tampa. His mother was a compassionate homemaker. He found his life’s calling as an artist when he saw his first-grade teacher magically draw the outline of a bunny rabbit on the blackboard with several simple overlapping circles. By age 12 he was selling his own sketches of animals for a couple of dollars. By age 19 he graduated to charcoal portraits. Shortly after he opened a portrait Gallery at the Westshore Plaza Mall in Tampa and also Galleria Mall in Houston. Jimmy decided to expand his horizons  and took his talents to Miami at a studio set up between the Carillon and Deauville Hotels across the street from the famous Wolfie’s Restaurant. While
there, he was fortunate to meet and learn from another artist “Armando” who specialized in pastel portraits. Jimmy mastered the skill of pastels, and his reputation grew to such heights as being commissioned in 1962 by the Democratic Party to paint a portrait of President John F. Kennedy. Jimmy was invited to fly to Miami where President Kennedy was presented the portrait at a speech given in the Orange Bowl. Up to that time Jimmy’s dad was not very supportive of Jimmy’s portrait painting endeavors which were not viewed as very masculine. But Jimmy then earned some welcomed respect when his dad offered to drive him to the airport for the flight to Miami. Jimmy later painted portraits for such luminaries as Robert F. Kennedy, Roy Rogers, Liberace, pop singer Dion (“Run Around Sue”), New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and Tonight Show TV cohost Ed McMahon.

By 1976 Jimmy was lured to New York by the Dell Publishing Company which started his lengthy career as a book cover illustrator. For four years Jimmy studied under Norman Rockwell’s protege and Professor at Ducret School of Art in New Jersey Peter Caras to learn the Rockwell method which he mastered. Before long, Caras considered Jimmy as one of his star pupils, friends and colleagues.

Jimmy was married on three occasions to Dolores, Cynthia, and Deborah. Even after their divorces, Jimmy maintained a friendly relationship with all three ex-wives.

Jimmy met and married his third wife Deborah while living in a spacious house in Tarpon Springs across from the Gulf of Mexico. In his spare time, Jimmy loved to fish on his boat named the “Thrillseaker”. He also loved boar hunting in the North Florida forests with his dogs Sonny Boy and Coco.

In the 1980’s Jimmy traveled to South Dakota to study and paint Native American tribes. The ruggedness and distinctiveness of the tribes appealed to him as a stark contrast to the young adult mystery and romance book covers. At 6 foot 4 and ruggedly handsome, Jimmy not only resembled an American cowboy, but he also painted himself on a Western book cover in the style of the Marlboro Man. Despite his dominating stature, Jimmy was a “gentle” man, guileless to a fault, generous, and slow to anger. He once chuckled his biography should be titled “The Portrait Hustler”. He often recited his only
attempt at poetry: “To love someone is to love their mind. Together minds entwine. Mine to be yours, and yours to be mine.” Jimmy was genuinely modest and shrugged off compliments at his immense artistic genius. He preferred to keep his light under a bushel.

The first time he saw his painting on a book cover in a bookstore brought a “thrilling smile” on his face. As he stood next to a lady looking over his book, Jimmy couldn’t resist the temptation to blurt out “I did that” while nodding at the book cover. The lady simply stood silently and looked at him incredulously. Jimmy repeated “Really, I painted that cover”. The lady put the book down and quietly walked away.

Upon return to Florida, Jimmy was welcomed to paint several members of the Seminole tribe including alligator wrestler Tommy Gore, Stanford 
Jumper, and Ole Tallahassee who led the Seminole Kissimmee lodge and was featured on the cover of the September 2006 Tallahassee Magazine.

Jimmy moved to Tallahassee in 2001 to be with his daughter Christina and grandchildren. He continued his hard work at the easel creating portraits which graced the covers of numerous magazines and books on golf. Jimmy painted his last portrait three weeks before he passed. It was a portrait of his hero Norman Rockwell.

Jimmy is survived by his children Christina Tucker (Alan Tucker), Brian Mathewuse (Laarnie Mathewuse), James Mathewuse, Janelle Mathewuse; his sister, Shannon Weight; his step-sons Edward MacDonald and Robert Mills; grandchildren Noelle Tucker, Haley Tucker, Robert Tucker and Mary Mathewuse; and great-grandchildren
Tyler Booth, Ashley Davis, Eli Priest, Abel Priest and Tucker-Grace

A memorial gathering in honor of Jimmy’s life will be celebrated on Saturday, October 30, 2021, at the home of daughter Christina and Alan Tucker at 4992 Branded Oaks Court, Tallahassee 32311 (3:00-5:00)


The Art of James L. Mathewuse

[Tallahassee Magazine Feature Article September/October 2006]

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