Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh
By Stephen Gjertson
For some of those interested in art of the American West, the name of William R. Leigh conjures up dramatic images of bucking broncos, buffalo stampedes, Indian fights and cowboys riding hell-bent-for-leather. Others see gentle images of everyday Navaho and Hopi Indian life in the Southwest: mothers and children, goat herders, weavers or courting lovers. Still others think of intense confrontations between man and beast or beast and beast: hunters rescuing a friend from a ruthless grizzly held at bay by snarling dogs, elephants stampeding after terrified natives, a horse startled by a rattle snake or a buffalo mother defending her calf against vicious wolves. Whatever images his name arouses in the mind, be they stirring or serene, it has been said that no artist has painted the Old West more faithfully and magnificently than William Robinson Leigh.
Born in West Virginia in 1866, Leigh was a contemporary of Frederic Remington, Charles Russell, Charles Shreyvogel, and most of the noted Western artists ― but he outlived them all, painting continuously until his death in 1955 at the age of 88. From an artistic standpoint, the qualities that set Leigh’s work apart from that of other artists who painted the West are his fine draftsmanship, his dramatic sense of gesture and the vivid truth of his color.
Leigh was fortunate to have had a better artistic training than many of the artists who painted the West. At 14 he began his formal studies at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. When he was 17, with aid from an uncle, he traveled to Germany and studied drawing and painting at the Royal Academy in Munich.
During the second half of the 19th century Paris and Munich were the most influential centers of artistic activity in Europe. Many Americans went abroad to study with eminent French and German masters. Although the two national schools were artistically quite distinct, they both provided sound training for the gifted young student. Leigh went to Germany not by choice, but because tuition was cheaper there than in Paris. His aim was to eventually study in Paris, because he felt that French artists were superior to German artists, but he never managed to do so.
At the Royal Academy Leigh was an extremely capable and conscientious student. His perception and expression of form, already fairly well developed from his previous study, was sharpened under the rigorous, but sympathetic, instruction of Karl Raupp in cast drawing and Nicolas Gysis in life drawing. Both of these men were notable artists whose work was animated and well drawn. By all accounts Gysis was a superb drawing master.
Leigh’s bold brushwork and use of impasto no doubt owes a great deal to the painting instruction of Ludwig von Loefftz, one of Germany’s preeminent figure painters. His instruction emphasized an alla-prima painting method similar to that of Carolus-Duran in France. When employed by an able draftsman this method has a delicious and immediate vigor. The distinctive look of much of Leigh’s later work, both on location and in the studio, was due in some measure to his robust alla-prima painting method and the resultant heavily textured surfaces. In larger works, he often contrasted thick paint with finely rendered smooth surfaces, particularly the more subtly modeled passages of flesh.
The emphasis of the German school was generally on form rather than color, the latter tending to be dark, heavy and rather dull, the so-called brown school that attempted to imitate certain works of the older Spanish, Flemish and Italian masters. But that didn’t seem to affect Leigh, who was apparently one of those rare individuals gifted with a natural eye for seeing color. Even in his early work the color was more brilliant and natural than that used by most German painters. After graduating with six medals, Leigh remained in Germany working with teams of artists painting huge panoramas of military, religious and historical subjects. This experience would serve him well in subsequent years, especially as it related to gesture drawing and the achievement of unity when working on a large scale.
In 1896, at the age of thirty, Leigh returned home after spending almost 13 years studying and painting in Germany. He returned with a thorough Munich training, characterized by a strong linear tradition, superb draftsmanship, vigorous brushwork and a rich use of impasto. Added to this was his good eye for observed color. He spent the next 10 years working in New York as a frustrated, but noted, illustrator. It was not until 1909, when he was 40, that Leigh was able to break away and pursue his boyhood dream of painting the American West. For Leigh, the West embodied everything that was intrinsically American. Like Thomas Moran, he disapproved of American artists imitating foreign styles and was determined to paint pictures of the landscape and life that he considered to be uniquely American. With his ability as a draftsman, his sense of drama and his eye for color Leigh was ideally suited to record the colorful and picturesque way of life in the Southwest; a way of life that was quickly vanishing.
On his trips west Leigh’s general practice was to paint many small and some medium-sized studies from nature. He would use these studies as reference material for paintings composed and painted in his studio after returning home. Since the time of Constable, this has been the procedure of artists whose work was either too large or too complex to be painted on location, but who wanted the veracity of color that could only be obtained by working directly from nature. In the 19th century, the manufacture of paint in tubes and portable paint boxes and easels made it possible to work outdoors more easily and many artists began to do so. The development of stronger colors, such as the cadmiums, made the notation of outdoor color more attainable. By the time Leigh was painting outdoors a full range of cadmium yellow colors was available and cadmium red came on the market in America during 1919.
In America, Thomas Moran did his outdoor studies in pencil and watercolor. Frederic Church did his in pencil and oil. Western artists such as Frederic Remington, Albert Bierstadt and Leigh did theirs primarily in oil. What is remarkable about the outdoor studies of Leigh, when compared to those by the other artists, is their color truth. They are impressionist in that he painted them directly from life with the intention of capturing as faithfully as he could the values, form, and color of what he observed. Their success, of course, accounts for much of the fine color in his studio work.
When Leigh first went west he was already a mature artist. He had great skill, an intense enthusiasm and an amazing capacity for hard work. His first sketching trip in the summer of 1906 was to Laguna, New Mexico and the Zuni Indian and Pueblo country. He set about painting at once. In his journal he wrote: “I was eager to waste no time at all. I saw that I needed studies of everything, the vegetation, the rocks, the plains, mesas, sky, the Indians and their dwellings. Scores of studies. Dependable studies. I saw so far as possible I must be a sponge, soak up everything I saw. . . . I started to paint, paint, paint.”
In the picturesque Zuni pueblo he “painted every day and all day. When I took my paint box and went to the town the experience was more like a waking dream than actuality. . . . It seemed as if it would be impossible to add or take away anything to heighten the fabulous picturesqueness. Color, line, massing, distribution, everything was perfect.” That October he spent two weeks painting studies at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. As he left he wrote: “My entire horizon had now been revamped. I knew. . . . that my old, original conception was correct. My field was the frontier West. From now on I knew I must return as often to that field as possible.”
The following year he fulfilled this desire and returned to live and paint on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Loaded with tent, camping gear and food as well as paint box, many canvas panels, a campstool of his own design and an umbrella, he packed in by mule. “Upon Columbus Point I have pitched my tent and propose spending a month all alone painting,” he related. Then he described his work for the month: “My studies progressed rapidly. Three studies to be done in the forenoon, three in the afternoon. An indefinite number of panels to be dashed off of fleeting effects or moods. Others more deliberately painted of characteristic details.” It is worth mentioning that small panels “dashed off of fleeting effects or moods”, when done by a master such as Leigh, are more reliable and useful to an artist than the photographic records used by many painters today, since photographs distort both the color and the values, two elements essential to capturing any outdoor effect. In many instances, the shapes are also distorted. Likewise, “more deliberately painted” studies of the landscape would contain more complete information of shapes and form, as well as color, that was necessary for work done in the studio. Such information would generally prove more useful than photographs in that it had already been selected by the artist and modified for its artistic and pictorial value.
Five days before he was to be picked up, Leigh notes that, “Two days earlier I had put the last touches on the six big studies. Only two panels would go into the lid of my paint box. Only these, therefore, could be wet. I now had time to kill the best I could. I did some writing and loafed around a bit.”
Leigh’s writing colorfully describes the impressions of his painting experience. Anyone who has braved the elements to paint outdoors can appreciate his vivid anecdotes. He describes the forenoon: “At ten o’clock the August sun is blistering hot. . . . I huddle as closely under my sketching umbrella as I can, yet the perspiration trickles from my elbow. . . . Some of my colors are melting and only by judicious tilting of the palette are prevented from sliding off. . . .” Later in the afternoon he notes that, “Suddenly the peak I have been painting is plunged into shadow. . . . A low rumble explains the reason. . . . A whirl of dust and debris fill the awakening air, and my wet canvas is speckled over with dirt that will necessitate a half-hour’s diligent picking with the point of a penknife blade to remove.”
Of the evening, as he attempts to capture the sunset on canvas, he writes eloquently, “Grandly, serenely, amid gold and scarlet and gilt-edged purples and far-flung shafts of radiance the incandescent ball is sinking. I struggle in mad haste to utilize the precious moments. . . .” Shortly afterward he continues, “Supper is over, I take my bacon to the tent for safety and climb to the top of a huge flat rock to sit for a few minutes before going to bed. The night is dark. The moon will rise late, and when it does, I will be up. I have a canvas ready and a fresh candle in my lantern. . . . Out of a profound slumber I come in an instant. . . . I wake up because the moon is shining through the sides of my tent. I get into my clothes, light the lantern and step outside. . . I gather up my canvas and paint box and make my way to the spot selected for the painting of moonlight. On a stick stuck in a crack of the overhanging ledge, I hang the lantern and start in furiously, for there will be just an hour and a half before the moon goes behind Point Yuma. With incredible swiftness the time flies, and when old Luna dodges out of sight I am daubed up with paint pretty thoroughly but have enjoyed myself hugely.” During his stay at Columbus Point Leigh completed over 150 studies, capturing many moods of the Grand Canyon before heading back east.
The following July the artist returned to Wyoming, where he sketched the wild Carter Mountains southwest of Cody while camping with his friend, Will Richard. He completed 30 studies of landscape and animals. Leigh’s accurate drawing and painting of animals is legendary and may, at least to some degree, have been enhanced by Richard, who was an excellent taxidermist. Leigh would often mail Richard photographs of animal paintings on which he was working, asking if he perceived errors in the drawing or construction of the animals. In his sketches, Leigh first drew the animal in pencil and then painted over the drawing with thick paint, finishing as much of the creature as time allowed. Richard was an avocational painter and Leigh once wrote to him with advice about painting. The advice Leigh gives explains the basic procedure that he used when sketching, as well as the necessity of selecting from, or changing nature to create art, even in a sketch. “It’s all right to be in love with nature, but don’t be fanatical. . . . All our pine trees look like Christmas trees, for instance. Pick out those to paint that are more striking and picturesque. If mountains are too sombre a color ― key it up, etc. In painting distant hills that are made up of a lot of different colors . . . lay in the sky, then the hills on the horizon, etc. on down the picture and compare the hills to get their true color and value and so on. But keep looking to see how much darker one color is to the next and their true color.” In Munich, Leigh had been taught to execute small painted studies directly in oil, with no preliminary drawing. When sketching outside, this is a common way for the experienced painter to proceed. For more complicated work, a quick preliminary drawing may be done on the canvas, to place things accurately within the space, before proceeding to paint.
From 1912 to 1926 Leigh spent nearly every summer painting and sketching in the Southwest, using a ranch owned Richard’s brother as a base of operations. In 1912 he visited Ganado, Arizona where, he says, “I painted studies there which have served me wonderfully well.” At the foot of First Mesa he “painted studies incessantly,” sometimes going up to the mesa “between two and four o’clock at night to paint moonlight effects.”
Leigh concentrated his painting efforts in the land of the Hopi and the Navaho in the Keams Canyon-Ganado area of the Zuni, Laguna and Acoma pueblos. After once visiting the Keyenta-Monument Valley region, he never failed to sketch there on his expeditions. In 1921 he spent his honeymoon camping and sketching at Monument Valley and Yellowstone.
The years between 1926 and 1935 are interesting and important in Leigh’s life and career. They mark an exotic departure from his painting of the American West. In 1926, one of Leigh’s pupils at the New York School of Industrial Art, Arthur A. Jansson (1890-1960), told him of the plans to paint dioramas behind groups of African animals for the proposed African Hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They were anxious to find a professional painter to accompany the forthcoming expedition, which Jansson was already scheduled to do. Two painters had been approached; one mural painter turned them down and the other, impressionist Willard Metcalf, had died suddenly. Carl Akeley, taxidermist, sculptor and head of the expedition, was desperate to find a suitable artist in time for his proposed departure for British East Africa. Intrigued, Leigh arranged to meet Akeley the next day. Jansson brought him to Leigh’s studio. After viewing Leigh’s work and conducting a brief interview, Akeley hired him on the spot as art director for African Hall. “When Carl Akeley selected me as the artist who would accompany him. . . . into Africa, I was tremendously pleased,” wrote Leigh. “He picked me because I had painted many panoramas in Europe and had studied twelve years in Germany, France and Switzerland, where I had often been awarded prizes for pictures. He picked me also because I had much experience in our Western states in painting the wildlife there and knew rough camp life. . . . Ours was not the usual kind of big game hunt. Akeley, whose genius raised taxidermy to . . . an art, was intent on securing material for groups of African animal life. With pen and brush I was to capture nature’s setting for her wild creatures. Akeley was to recreate African scenes ― animals to be mounted by him against landscape settings painted by me.”
Akeley recognized the similarity of the African landscape to that of the American West, particularly in color, and he felt that the vast panoramas could be captured well by Leigh. He saw in Leigh’s work the qualities that he considered essential to the success of the project: fine drawing of animals, good color, attention to essential detail, technical skill, poetry and drama. At age 59, Leigh was in good health and possessed remarkable physical stamina. He was at home in the field and skilled at painting outdoors. Leigh proved to be the right man for the job.
For thirteen months the museum expedition traveled throughout Africa gathering the necessary material and specimens for the various groups in the exhibit. At every location Akeley and Leigh worked together to select specific views for the backgrounds, since Akeley had definite ideas about the backgrounds he wanted for his animal groups. “In painting studies for backgrounds,” Leigh stated, “ it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate picture will be painted on a half-circular canvas; also that a plastic foreground must be joined up with the picture. Some joinings are more convincing than others, and the sense of distance, aerial perspective, the impression of looking downhill, the management of shadows and lights, must all be thought of while selecting the motive.” Leigh painted one large study for each diorama. These studies consisted of two 22 x 33 inch canvasses which could be fastened together while painting at each location. He did other details on this scale as well as many smaller studies on 12 x 16 inch canvas panels of trees, rocks, light effects, clouds, or views that interested him. Some, of fleeting effects such as clouds and sunsets, are done quickly in one session. Others, when he wanted more information, are obviously done in multiple sessions at the same time of day. While working, he had to bear in mind that the backgrounds needed to be not only correct in drawing, color and effect, “but they must be as typical of the continent as were the beasts they accompanied; in fauna and flora, in geology and geography. . . .” They “must give as comprehensive a sense of the essence of Africa as was possible within our limitations.” He went on to explain that, “The background to a group of animals calls for the utmost measure of truth, . . . in subtlety of tone, color, and line, the massing of light and shade, the catching of character in forms, the rendering of textures, the achievement of the illusion of realism and forgetfulness of paint, there exists a challenge; the mightiest wielders of the brush that walk may well take counsel with themselves ere taking up this dare, for Africa is diversified and vast and strenuous.”
In March of 1926 the expedition reached Nairobi, East Africa. “Our first safari to the Lukenia hills was during the rainy season,” related Leigh. “The Athi plains were green and meadowlike, and the brilliantly colored rock lichens had dressed the kopjes in their most effective liveries. These rocks were a revelation . . . and we were lured into making a number of separate studies of them, besides our studies for the Klipspringer Group.” Leigh’s studies of the Athi plains and the rocks on the Lukenia hills are some of his best. He worked purely for himself on landscape elements that he found interesting. The plains are rendered beautifully, the form and atmosphere captured with great truth and finesse. He must have been fascinated by the huge, castle-like ant hills that dotted the landscape as he named one study Ant Hill on Right. The picturesque shapes and variegated color of the rocks on the Lukenia Hills appealed to his artistic sensibilities and are among the most interesting of the African studies that he did of his own volition.
At Waso Nyiro Leigh painted studies for the Water Hole Group. “There was something thrilling about being out painting in that wild solitude,” he wrote. “The heat was just sufficient to make the paint work beautifully without any thinning medium. To sit there painting in the vast shimmering landscape was ideal.” His studies clearly capture the “shimmering” landscape ― vegetation and expanses that reminded him of the Painted Desert of Arizona. Unlike Leigh, Jansson found it difficult to adjust to camp life. He was kept awake at night by the sounds of hunting lions and hyenas. He eventually quit the expedition and left Leigh to paint the background studies on his own. This was probably a relief to Leigh, who thought that Jansson was an amateur artist. At Tinga-Tinga Leigh painted the studies for the Buffalo Group, traveling to several locations to find all of the elements necessary for the background. He also painted several brilliant studies of the Tinga-Tinga Mcubwa swamp, as fine as those done by the best of the American impressionists.
The trip to the next location was hazardous. “Sudden departures on long and arduous trips necessitated the construction of special boxes to protect studies from dust and careless handling; also against rain, and insects, and lizards that may crawl over them during the night, especially while the paint is wet. These boxes must be entrusted to carriers who will not fall down in the middle of rivers, or bump them violently against rocks and trees.”
For the Plains Group they journeyed to the Serengeti Plains. Conditions there were perfect. “Making the Plains Group background was fun,” recalled Leigh, “a three mile drive every morning and afternoon with an auto-truck, amid vast numbers of gnu, topi, zebra, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles, impala, kongoni, wart-hogs, and occasional bands of ostriches, oryx, and giraffe, with now and then a bunch of hyenas, a stray jackal or fox, even a lion or two ― a drive to a pleasant hillside, where I sat in the truck overlooking the enormous game-dotted stretches, and in perfect weather painted Tanganyika. Wild dogs on the hills above me barked; secretary birds stalked by, and bustards paused and surveyed me curiously. I had time to paint storm effects, and moonrises, and intimate studies of grass-stretches and trees and kopjes; and there were no mosquitoes, no ticks; there was a nice, comfortable roaring of lions each night, an occasional stampede of game through the camp that did no harm, and endless howling of hyenas, of course. It was a picnic.”
The Gorilla Group was to be situated in front of Mount Mikeno. Tragedy struck on November 17th when Carl Akeley died suddenly of pneumonia and was buried on the slopes of the mountain. Akeley’s death was a devastating blow to all, but his wife assumed responsibility for continuing the work of her husband and the expedition continued. “The responsibility of finding the point from which to paint became mine solely,” lamented Leigh. From their base camp at the foot of the mountain they climbed over rough terrain until they found a spot that afforded them a grand view of two active volcanoes. The artist “established a camp after leveling sufficient space by excavating back into the bank. It placed me five hundred feet above the base camp and necessitated a stay of more than three weeks, during which food and water had to be brought up to me daily. Work had to be done during such intervals as clouds and rain permitted. I painted from the open end of a big fly, which could not be prevented from flopping when the wind blew and jarring the canvas incessantly.
I worked most of the time with a charcoal stove beside me, or between my feet, and clumsy with all the clothes I had heaped upon me. . . . the studies would all have been ruined but for extraordinary precautions. As it was, the dampness of the mountains made the canvasses so loose and flabby that work on them was difficult. . . . I determined not to miss the opportunity to get a study of the peak of Mount Mikeno ― although it had nothing to do directly with the group; yet the red glow of the declining sun made a thing too marvelous to be resisted. It was a case of painting furiously upon those rare occasions when that phase of the peak could be seen. Often a sudden shower necessitated a hasty retreat to camp, for to get what I wanted I was obliged to go fifty yards off to one side. It was also incumbent upon me to make a great number of studies of plants with their flowers and berries.”
The museum planned ten habitat groups for African Hall. The final leg of this expedition was to the dreary desert track around Lake Hannington in Kenya. With his usual flair Leigh describes the experience: “On arrival at our base camp it became my duty to ascend the eighteen hundred foot escarpment, and find a site from which to paint the background for the Greater Koodoo Group; as far as could be seen the escarpment was a pathless rampart, covered with a vat variety of bushes and cacti ― every one ingeniously armed with most vicious thorns ― rocks, grass, and briars, and was exceedingly steep, where passable at all, while most of it consisted of sheer cliffs. . . . The top of the escarpment gained, a wide broken country spread out before us, in which the vegetation gave no hope of water within range of the eye.”
Leigh continues: “Following the jagged edge of the cliff-system for two miles, over parched and pathless wastes of lava-strewn ravines and hog-backs ― a wilderness of thorn and bramble in which baboons and impala scampered from sight ― I came at noon to the place I decided my camp would be. It commanded a magnificent view of the lake and the two walls of the Rift Valley. Yet to make sure that I had really found the best point, I explored several miles farther, without changing my mind. By the evening of the next day I was established in my new camp and had begun work. . . . As in the Congo, I had to do a large number of plant studies in addition to painting the view. The wind blew sand and litter over the wet paint and sawed the ropes of the fly in two against the rocks. Yet it was a fascinating camp ― so deserted and savage. . . .”
When Leigh had completed his studies at Lake Hannington, he made arrangements to have eighty works by him and Jansson exhibited in Nairobi before returning home. Afterward he supervised their shipment back to the museum. “The shipment of painted studies is a detail also not to be neglected,” he affirmed. “All rolling or bending is bad. Mr. Raddatz constructed a metal case with handles, into which all the larger studies, after removal of the stretchers, were packed with oiled paper between each two, so that lying flat and sealed against dampness, they traveled safely . . . across the ocean and into the museum. In like manner the panel studies and sketch books were separately and specially packed. . . .” Leigh sent back five two-painting vistas, eight large studies for other groups, and almost fifty small canvas panels ― details of sky and land.
The following year Leigh returned to Africa with another expedition to gather specimens for the Lion Group on the Serengeti Plains. As he had done the previous year, Leigh painted one large panorama of the entire subject and smaller panels of details. “Sometimes as I worked, whole herds of animals came by,” he noted. “Their curiosity compelled them to come to a stand and study me . . . three hundred, five hundred, a thousand pairs of soft, bright eyes fixed on me.”
Integral to the conception of African Hall was the desire to show as many African landmarks as possible. It was decided to change the background of the Greater Koodoo Group from Lake Hannington to Mount Kilimanjaro, a more important landmark. This necessitated new studies for the background. While working there Leigh poetically described the scene before him: “Everything developed just as I knew it must. The exquisite island of magical pink, swimming in an opalescent ocean of delicate tones, appeared at the appropriate hour as if intentionally arranged to suit me. Below it everything was in shadow ― the luminous crepuscule of a world which had just turned from the sun, but was bathed in the light reflected from the sky. . . . The foreground was ideal for placing the animals, and in my imagination I could see the whole picture finished.”
While at Kilimanjaro the artist again mentions the great care he took to protect his studies while they were in progress. After carrying one back to the car he says, “I placed it in a position to preclude any possibility of smearing or of dust settling on the wet paint, and tied it securely in its position. Then I covered it in a tarpaulin and fastened that on. All this care is indispensable to procure reliable studies in difficult country. Unless a wet canvas is protected, dust, seed pods, straws, and insects will be blown against it. If it is carried any distance, switches will scrape it and grasshoppers and ants will crawl over it, tracking green paint from the trees all over the sky. Bees and moths will paste their bodies against it in full career, and then wallow and slop about trying to extricate themselves. Mosquitoes will leave their wings and legs plastered against the most delicate and conspicuous parts.”
This second trip to Africa lasted only five months. After Leigh returned home, the African Hall project was suspended, for lack of funds, until 1932. From then until he resigned from the project in 1935 Leigh was in charge of a group of artists painting the background panoramas for eight of these animal groups. Obviously, his experience painting cycloramas in Munich had prepared him well for this task. His work was very successful and highly praised. When studying the background dioramas Leigh created from his field studies one cannot help but be amazed by both their artistry and truthful effect. Of the Waterhole Group, diorama artist Clarence Tillenius observes, “What is particularly memorable to a painter, in this diorama background, is the exquisitely toned modulation of distance, of aerial perspective, the sense of shimmering sunlight where the oncoming animals are surrounded by a dust halo stirred up by moving hooves. The whole effect is one of dancing, vibrating light. . . .” He goes on to assert that, “So magnificently conceived and carried out are these great dioramas, that it is only after prolonged visits and study that even a trained artist can begin to appreciate to the full the mastery of color, technique and pictorial composition that these works display. . . . one cannot help but come away with an awakened awareness of what a tremendous artist Wm. R. Leigh was, and the sureness of Carl Akeley’s instinct in choosing him to be the master artist of the African Hall.”
After the 1930s Leigh returned with vigor to painting Western subjects, for which he utilized the hundreds of studies he had painted previously. He kept them categorized and filed according to subject, the pertinent ones brought out for reference as needed. When he worked, his easel was surrounded by drawings and studies to which he constantly referred. The method Leigh used for his studio paintings was typical German academic procedure, and may have been used for his more complicated studies done outdoors. “You start with a detailed charcoal drawing and then paint over that ― the most distant things first. If there are no clouds, the sky may take no more than a day. The distant figures may be done in a week. It gets more difficult as you approach the foreground ― a large canvas may take four or six months altogether ― but the most economical way is to finish as you go.” Leigh believed that “Ease in painting as in everything else is a result of efficiency, not of affectation, not of manner. Delightful ease is charming, but a spurious imitation of it is disgusting. There is such a thing as style, but it can easily become a vice. Only when it comes naturally as a result of real mastery is it delightful. Only when obvious brush strokes are given meaning, expression, and character are they art.” Leigh’s finest sketches and finished paintings are painted with a loaded brush in thick pastes of paint, usually in the service of recreating the form, texture or visual effect of the objects depicted, the result of his mastery of the grammar of art. For some studio paintings, such as A Close Call, Leigh glazed color over a thickly impastoed surface. He was master of many methods and, like any accomplished artist, used them to achieve the effect that he wanted.
It seems that Leigh did relatively little sketching out West during the final two decades of his life. The rigors of sketching outside were more easily done when he was younger. Nevertheless, the hundreds of sketches that he had already painted served him very well. The extraordinary brilliance of these studies, their significance in the development of Leigh’s art and their incomparable example to artists pursuing similar goals make studying them greatly beneficial, especially at a time when the camera has replaced the serious study of nature for many artists. To appreciate Leigh’s achievement his studies must be seen in person. There is no better place to view a significant number of them than the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the death of Leigh and his wife, the contents of the artist’s New York studio were donated to this museum by his brother-in-law. Although not currently on view, the reconstructed studio is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Also included in this collection are over five hundred of his oil studies ― the remarkable fruit of twenty-five trips to the Southwest.
At the Gilcrease one can view the heart of Leigh’s art. “My work has been called ‘documentary,’ ” declared the artist in a radio interview in 1939. “This I feel to be the finest of compliments, for I have devoted a lifetime to re-creating natural studies and have endeavored, above all else, to paint with fidelity to nature.” His fidelity to nature may be seen in his numerous studies of animals and figures, landscapes, clouds, forests and creeks, sunrises and sunsets, moonlit mesas and desert vistas. Some are more successful than others, but the poetry and veracity of the vast majority enable them to be enjoyed on their own as genuine works of art, as well as representing part of the process that Leigh used to create the finished works upon which he would have wanted his art judged.
For the most part, Leigh’s studies are painted on commercially prepared cotton canvas panels. The majority of them are 12 x 16 or 14 x 18, but there are many larger ones and several large, finished landscapes, some done from his oil studies. Because they are so numerous most of them are in storage, but museum officials welcome artists who wish to study the Leigh Collection. All that they require is an appointment.
The artist’s African studies are more difficult to see. Many of them were sold into private collections by Grand Central Galleries in 1948. However, a small group was purchased by Dr. Richard Dominick from John Traphagen, the artist’s brother-in-law and executor of the Leigh estate. Dominick donated them to the Explorer’s Club in New York, where they are on permanent display in the second story stairwell. The American Museum of Natural History currently owns only one large canvas, a 33 x 88 1/2 inch background study for the Gorilla Group. Its size suggests that it was a study painted in New York from the smaller ones done on location at Mount Mikeno. A similar study for the Gorilla Group (reproduced above) was recently sold at auction. In 1998 Gerald Peters Gallery exhibited 48 of Leigh’s African studies, the largest number shown together for fifty years. Some of these were among his best.
Leigh’s artistic legacy rests primarily on his paintings of the West and Southwest that he painted in his New York studio. The convincing sense of reality that he achieved in the best of them is due, in large measure, to the excellence of the outdoor studies that he used as sources of information. The majority of these studies are masterpieces of their kind. They have an intensity and immediacy that can only be achieved by a fine artist, with a sensitive eye, in the presence of nature. Through unerring draftsmanship and an acute eye for color values Leigh has fixed on these panels the form and atmosphere of the frontiers he loved, both here and in Africa.
“The world is so wonderful, so marvelous,” Leigh said shortly before his death. “If people would only open their eyes to it. If only they would see the color and enchantment waiting to be discovered right before them.” Embodied in his outdoor studies are Leigh’s attempt to discover and record the color and enchantment of this marvelous world. Few men have done so with as skillful a hand or as passionate a heart as William Robinson Leigh.
The author wishes to thank Anne Morand, former Curator of Art Collections at the Gilcrease Museum and Joel Sweimler, Art Survey Manager at the American Museum of Natural History for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.
An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Classical Realism Quarterly, January, 1991. Another edited version appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Plein Air Magazine.
Cummins, D. Duane, William Robinson Leigh, University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.
DuBois, June, W. R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography, The Lowell Press, 1977.
Hunt, David C., “W. R. Leigh: A Painter in Africa,” in William R. Leigh: African Landscapes, exhibition catalog, Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, 1998.
Natural History, African Number, Journal of the American Museum of Natural History, November-December 1927.
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