Of the painters who gained fame as delineators of the American West around the turn of the century, William Robinson Leigh is routinely cited as the most thoroughly trained. A native of West Virginia, Leigh was born in 1866 as the son of impoverished Southern aristocrats. At the age of 14, he was sent to study art in Maryland. A few years later, Leigh left to study at the academy in Munich but had to return to the U.S. in 1886, when his family could no longer pay for his education abroad. Leigh ultimately journeyed back to Germany a couple years later where the aspiring artist eventually experienced some success.
After returning to the U.S., Leigh moved to New York in 1896, where he worked as an illustrator at Scribner’s magazine as well as Collier’s, McClure’s, Harper’s, and Bobbs-Merrill. By the beginning of the 20th century, Leigh had earned a reputation as an accomplished illustrator. After having met the American landscape artist Thomas Moran and hearing of the artist’s appeal for more native art during a time of European fashions, Leigh confirmed his interest in the West.
In 1906, Leigh broke away from New York and traveled to New Mexico. The artist fell in love with the desert country and returned to the Southwest every summer for the next three years. Beginning in 1910, Leigh also accepted invitations to join hunting trips to the Yellowstone region and the high ranges of the Rockies. It was during these journeys to the West when Leigh had his first encounter with American Indians of the Crow and Sioux tribes. During his travels to the Southwest between 1912 and 1926, the artist concentrated on Hopi and Navaho subjects for his canvases. Plains Indian life later served as a model for some of his most dramatic paintings.
By the teens and twenties, Leigh was enjoying regular exhibitions of his work, with his paintings of Wyoming and the Southwest coming to the attention of many, including American artist Thomas Moran. In 1914, Leigh and a small group of artists formed the Allied Artists of America, with whom he served as chairman of the Poster Committee and whose membership included another SRM artist, Frank Tenney Johnson. Leigh exhibited in the Allied Artists annual shows from 1914 until his death. The artist also exhibited at the Union League Club, the National Academy of Design, and with Thomas Moran and the Taos artists at Snedecor and Babcock.
In 1921, Leigh married the fashion designer Ethel Traphagen. He taught classes in life drawing at her school, the Traphagen School of Fashion and Design, opened in New York a couple years after their marriage. A business-savvy woman, Ethel was devoted to furthering her husband’s position and career in the art world.
In 1926, the American Museum of Natural History asked Leigh to join an expedition to Africa to secure animal life material for their African Hall. He arrived in Mombasa in spring of 1926, and spent the next year recording all he encountered. He returned to Africa in 1928 for another museum trip. Afterwards, from 1932-1935, Leigh led a group of artists in painting the background murals for each African Hall exhibit in the museum.
In the thirties, Leigh also wrote articles, plays, and short stories. During this period, the artist taught at the Art Students League and the New York Evening School of Industrial Art. Leigh continued to paint scenes of the West, with the works of his last fifteen years to be considered among his greatest. Sometimes labeled a romantic realist, the artist was a great draftsman and had a liberated sense of color. In 1939, coinciding with the World’s Fair, the artist had a one-man show at the Grand Central Art Galleries, which included several paintings of his West and Southwest scenes. Formally recognized by the National Academy of Design, Leigh was given the title National Academician in 1955, days before his death. Leigh died on March 11, 1955, after a productive morning of painting.