Yesterday we looked at a beautiful picture by William Robinson Leigh (1866 –1955), a forgotten master at depicting the American West. Today we venture West once again with Leigh and his picture Afterglow Over the Zuni River.
During his trips West, Leigh would paint many small studies from nature. These pictures would later be used as reference materials for paintings executed in his New York studio. Leigh was able to incorporate the new technology of oil paint in tubes to work with relative ease outdoors and capture an initial impression and a sense of color. It is the opinion of Stephen Gjerston, author of Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, that this practice of alla-prima color sketching accounts for much of the fine color of his studio work.
Leigh had a particular affinity for native Americans and their homes. During a sketching trip in the summer of 1906, he spent time in Zuni Indian and Pueblo country. In his journal Leigh wrote: I was eager to waste no time at all. I saw that I needed studies of everything, the vegetation, the rocks, the plains, mesas, sky, the Indians and their dwellings. Scores of studies. Dependable studies. I saw so far as possible I must be a sponge, soak up everything I saw … I started to paint, paint, paint.
Today we look at Afterglow Over the Zuni River. This is oil on canvas board, 13 x 17, currently residing at the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa. By any yardstick, Afterglow is a remarkable picture.
Perhaps the most startling thing about the painting is that nothing is really the color that you expect it to be. This is perhaps the greatest pitfall that young artists make when attacking a landscape picture. The immediate assumption is that clouds are white, the sky is blue, grass is green and water transparent. However, any time spent in the outdoors open to the intoxication of color would give lie to those assumptions. Clouds are never just white, as grass is seldom only green or skies blue. In fact, in some of the more beautiful spaces of the American West, the natural landscape is a riot of color more than equal to anything a Post Modernist could dream up.
Here at the Zuni River, dusk has rendered the landscape purple. Though the sky still holds some orange color from the setting (or already set) sun, the moon is out, a glowing scimitar in the sky. The clouds, the river and the sandy river bed are stained purple as well, though the water really flows with a myriad of colors as it reflects the varying shades of dusk.
The Zuni village in the background is still – most native peoples were asleep with the sun. However, the simple structures seem to be part of nature, as natural to the landscape as the river weeds Leigh uses to frame the image.
Afterglow is also a wonderfully evocative picture. I believe – aside from the splendid and inspired color – the reason it is so effective is because of his use of the moon and the star in the upper left hand corner. These celestial bodies provide a timeless sense to the picture – as if the Zuni River were part of an unending cosmos of creation and natural beauty.
What I find most fascinating about this picture is that, again, Leigh depicts the natural world in a fairly Impressionist manner; however, the moon and star have a sense of crystallization absent in Impressionism. They are so clear and so cleanly delineated that they could almost come from an illustrated book of celestial bodies. It is this mix of realism and a looser artistic style that I think is Leigh’s great accomplishment.
In the Zuni mythology, Awonawilona was the creator of the world, becoming the sun and making the Mother Earth and Father Sky, from whom all living creatures came. The quiet power of that ancient deity can be felt in the picture, a sense of transcendence just beyond our power to see.