Organizations* : AAA, NA
During his career, W.R. (William Robinson) Leigh was both an illustrator and a painter, best known for his paintings of plains, mountains, canyons, and other Western landscapes and themes. Leigh is referred to by some as the “Sagebrush Rembrandt,” due to his use of traditional European techniques in his painting of the American West.
Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia, in 1866. He began his formal art training at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore at the age of fourteen. When he was seventeen, he traveled to Munich, Germany, where he studied at the Royal Academy for twelve years. His work there on murals and panoramas earned him numerous awards. Returning to New York City in 1896, Leigh became an illustrator for magazines such as Scribner’s and Collier’s. He also painted portraits, landscapes, and compositions with both human and animal figures.
During this time, Leigh noted that artists had not yet fully represented the West. Subsequently, in 1906, at the age of forty, Leigh persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to give him free transportation for his first trip West, in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. The painting resulted in five more commissions, allowing Leigh more freedom to truly capture the spirit of the Southwest. In portraying the vastness of the West, Leigh’s palette incorporated a bold use of color while emphasizing soft hues, a technique that allowed him to express the majestic skies and cascading mountains of the area. His critics who knew little of the Southwest accused him of fabricating the colors.
Under the inspiration of repeated trips to Arizona, New Mexico, as well as the Dakotas, Wyoming and other northern Rocky Mountain states, Leigh produced many pictures owned by important collectors all over the United States and in foreign countries, including the Duke of Windsor and the late King Albert of the Belgians.
In 1921 Leigh married Ethel Traphagen, a women’s clothing designer, and together they established the successful Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. In 1926 and 1928, Leigh made two trips to Africa. On these trips he did many paintings of the big game animals, and returning to New York he did the backgrounds for animal habitat groups in the Akeley African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History.
It was during the 1940’s that Leigh received national recognition as a leader in Western art. After his death in 1955, Leigh’s widow presented his entire studio to the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His art can also be found in other public collections nationwide, including the Amon Carter Museum in Texas, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma, the Huntington Museum in New York and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Wyoming. Leigh was elected Academician at the National Academy of Design the year he died.