William R. Leigh was born in West Virginia in 1866. At age fourteen, he enrolled in classes at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and studied for three years. He then moved to Munich, where he studied at the Royal Academy for over a decade. While there, he received the annual medal six times in succession. He left Germany in 1895.
Upon returning to the United States, William Robinson Leigh lived in New York City and created illustrations for magazines, including McClure’s Magazine, The Century, Scribner’s and Collier’s. He was successful as an illustrator, but longed for new challenges. He found it in 1906 when the Sante Fe Railroad offered him passage west in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. He traveled through New Mexico and Arizona. This trip greatly influenced William R. Leigh and his later works would focus on images of the Western landscape, its inspiring wilderness, and inhabitants. The Santa Fe Railroad commissioned five more paintings.
Leigh painted the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Forest, but his primary interest was the Hopi and Navajo Indians, who he painted every summer from 1912 to 1926. His work reflects the changing light, and the color display when the sun sets over the mountains. William Robinson Leigh was often referred to as “The Sagebrush Rembrandt”. He noted in The Western Pony, a book that he wrote and illustrated in 1933: “I find in the West the truly typical and distinctively American motifs, a grandeur in natural surroundings, a dramatic simplicity in life which can be found nowhere else. In that life, in those surroundings-marvelously varied and abundant-the horse plays a major role.”
William Robinson Leigh never lived in the west, but instead split his time painting the western landscape or people, and in New York, teaching with his wife. He and his wife, Ethel Traphagen, opened the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York. The school was known for their innovations and claim responsibility for introducing shorts and slacks to women’s wear lines.
In 1926, he was commissioned to paint backgrounds for the Akeley African hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He made a second trip to Africa in 1928. From 1932 to 1935, he painted all the backgrounds for each exhibit shown in the African Hall. By 1940, Leigh was well established as a fine artist. In addition to his commissions, Leigh exhibited at the Paris Salon, National Academy of Design, the Corcoran Gallery, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Some of the paintings inspired by his travels in the Southwest are owned by important collectors in both United States and abroad, including the Duke of Windsor and the late King Albert of the Belgians.
Leigh died in New York on March 11, 1955. The Leigh studio is installed at the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma where over 500 paintings and 300 drawings are held.
Other Museum Collections
Arizona State University Art Museum
Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh / Carnegie Institute
Desert Caballeros Western Museum
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
Farnsworth Art Museum
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art
Joslyn Art Museum
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum
National Gallery of Art
National Museum of Wildlife Art
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum
Rockwell Museum of Western Art
Sangre de Cristo Arts Center
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Springville Museum of Art
Stark Museum of Art
The Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art
The Newark Museum
The Sid Richardson Colletion of Western Art
The University of Arizona Museum of Art
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Antique Roadshow appraisal video of William Robinson Leigh painting. Interesting facts. This painting appraised for $75,000.