Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Western Art of William R. Leigh Part I

As summer starts and we approach July 4th, I wanted to touch upon the western art of William R. Leigh. 

There is a mistaken assumption that great art is a strictly European achievement.  However, many of the finest artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were here in the United States.  Not just Impressionists and Ash Can artists, but great masters who made as their subject the opening of the American West.

One of the artists overlooked in our veneration of the likes of Charles Russell (1864-1926) and Frederic Remington (1861-1909), is William Robinson Leigh (1866 –1955).  The three men were contemporaries, but Leigh managed to outlive the other two by some 30 years or more.  Like Russell, he was something of a wanderer, and made trips to the American West in search of subjects to paint.  While there, he made countless oil color studies that he brought back with him to his New York studio to further develop as full-scale pictures.  (Like another Western artist we have looked at, Charles Shreyvogel, most of his creations were executed here on the East Coast.)  Leigh was also something of a global explorer, going with the great taxidermist and sculptor Carl Akeley (1864 - 1926) to Africa.  (If you think you don’t know Akeley, think again: he is the man responsible for most of the great mounted exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History.)

Leigh was born in West Virginia and began his formal training at age 14 in the Maryland Institute in Baltimore.  At 17 he traveled to Germany, studying at the Royal Academy in Munich.  Leigh proved to be an industrious student; he worked with Karl Raupp in cast drawing and Nicolas Gysis in life drawing.  These men were superb teachers and Leigh learned much from them.  (As you may remember from earlier columns, Russell disdained formal art training.  One may well wonder what masterpieces he would’ve produced with a more solid sense of draftsmanship!)

Leigh also learned much from Ludwig von Loefftz.  His instruction emphasized an alla-prima painting method; this sense of spontaneity, along with Leigh’s already trained drawing methods, were a felicitous combination.  Leigh was now able to create vigorous, action-filled scenes with the precision and skill of a European master.

Leigh returned to the US in 1896, when he was 30, after 13 years studying abroad.  He lived in New York for 10 years, working primarily as an illustrator.  When Leigh hit 40 he ventured West to paint what was already a vanishing world.  As Stephen Gjerston writes in Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh: 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.

Today we are looking at a picture called Master of His Domain, painted around 1920.  This is a good-sized oil, 40 x 30, currently in the Rockwell-Corning Museum, New York.  As already established, the draftsmanship is superb.  Look at how Leigh delineates the lanky muscles of the figure with clear, unfussy lines.  The face is powerful and introspective and never descends into caricature.  The left arm rests lazily on the bent leg; the right hand holds the right calf.  No excess of movement or line, just simple and natural, like the subject itself.  The quiver of arrows at his side is cleanly rendered, and particular attention is paid to his moccasins, armband and ornamental feathers.  This quiet virtuosity would not be out of place in the most finished production of the most skilled of European masters; indeed, the figure itself is a triumph of realism.

Where Leigh hits his masterstroke, though, is that he grounds this supremely realistic figure in a setting of almost Impressionist color.  The rocks, trees, cliff and sky are rendered in thick brushstrokes of color with little delineation or detail. 

In the barren but beautiful landscape, the figure is indeed master of his domain.  However, one cannot help but believe that Leigh was indulging in a bit of bitter irony with his title – this beautiful picture is also an elegy for an entire people and way of life.  The American Indian is indeed sitting on a pinnacle, but he will not be there for long.

More William Leigh tomorrow!


lyle said...

"....that great art is a strictly European achievement". Yet, you talk about Leigh's education in Europe. Was that primarily the gig in art, go to Europe to study then come back to execute? Where were the American schools? Or, when did they come into existence?

"...brushstrokes of color with little delineation or detail." I recently read a discussion about the latest fad in photo schools, very shallow depth of field. But if you look at the very best in portraiture, you come to the conclusion that it is not 'shallow dof', it is simply what has to be in focus is in focus.

James Abbott said...

Thanks for the question!

In the 19th Century, Europe was really the place for a world class art education. However, the US made significant strides in the early 20th Century, and there were several places (including the Arts Students League) that provided everything even the most demanding and gifted student could need.

I have always been fascinated by photography, but know very little about it. I have to learn more -- the great thing about a blog like this is that I get to be educated in public!