W. R. Leigh: Contrary Genius
William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955), one of the seminal artists of the American West, was an unsparing individualist and a famous contrarian. He was anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, anti-African-American, anti-capitalist, anti-communist, anti-government, anti-marriage, antiModernism, anti-art establishment, anti-everything and everybody. Born in West Virginia, Leigh’s genteel Southern family lost their plantation in the aftermath of the Civil War and he grew up—resentful and impoverished—gritting his teeth at family tales of antebellum glories. His artistic talent earned him a ticket to Munich, and he spent twelve years at the academy there, perfecting his skills.
Settling afterwards in New York, Leigh met Thomas Moran, who encouraged the young artist to travel to the American West. Leigh followed the great man’s advice and the unspoiled Native American peoples living in vast, beautiful landscapes acted as a tonic for Leigh’s distaste for cities and civilization. Leigh would make the West his principal subject and he would come to be regarded in the same breath as Remington and Russell.
Many of Leigh’s paintings are action scenes—buffalo hunts, bucking broncs, dashes and races against time. The other side of Leigh’s work, his contemplative Western canvases, spring from his profound admiration for Native Americans, especially the Hopi, Zuni and Navajo. Leigh felt that they alone respected the Earth and one another, that they alone apprehended the beauty of Nature as an instinct, with true purity—unlike “civilized” man, who creates a misguided and misleading idea of Nature rooted in intellect. Leigh must have been in a harmonious mood when he painted The Great Spirit. Looking out into the dusky haze that settles
in the canyon, the Indian sits, contemplating the setting sun. Fading light shades the layers of eroded stone in lavender while the edges of the layers and the cliff face glow salmon pink.
The vista shimmers in the distance and plunges to the canyon floor. The Indian echoes the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, yet he appears to be in emotional opposition to the figure in the famous French bronze. Clothed in a striped robe, the pattern on the back is suggestive of Pueblo renderings of the universe. Unlike The Thinker, whose muscles are taut as he struggles to make sense of things, the Indian is entirely at ease, at home. He isn’t thinking about eternity, mortality, or anything that smacks of philosophy. He’s experiencing the moment, living in it, in a timeless, strangely modern way—isn’t this precisely how we are all supposed to live?
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William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955), one of the seminal artists of the American West, was an unsparing individualist and a famous contrarian