We continue with our look at the West of William R. Leigh with The Leader's Downfall, painted in 1946. This is oil on canvas, 78 x 126, a sizable picture. It is currently housed in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, in Oklahoma City.
Leigh would often return to the West for inspiration, making countless color studies and oil sketches to be later developed into larger, more ambitious pictures. He spent every summer from 1912 to 1926 in the Southwest, often staying at a friend’s ranch. He also did not mind mixing pleasure with pleasure, spending his honeymoon in 1921 camping and sketching at Monument Valley and Yellowstone.
Leigh observed nature and learned from it, but he was not its slave. Here is some advice Leigh provided a fellow artist: It’s all right to be in love with nature, but don’t be fanatical … All our pine trees look like Christmas trees, for instance. Pick out those to paint that are more striking and picturesque. If mountains are too somber a color – key it up, etc. In painting distant hills that are made up of a lot of different colors … lay in the sky, then the hills on the horizon, etc. on down the picture and compare the hills to get their true color and value and so on. But keep looking to see how much darker one color is to the next and their true color.
Leigh would spend 1926 to 1935 in Africa, working with Carl Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History. Much of the work that came from these expeditions is fascinating, but, it is rather a shame that left the sun-kissed landscapes of America for the Dark Continent. It’s not surprising that once the African excursions were over, Leigh concentrated on Americana once again.
Today’s picture is from later in Leigh’s career (a scant nine year before his death). It shows Leigh’s skills as a colorist with a vengeance, as well as his inherent sense of drama. The Leader’s Downfall depicts a group of American Indians pursuing wild ponies and capturing the leader. Let’s look at some of the things Leigh does so wonderfully well.
The main figure (the Indian on the paint horse with the rope) is in a ‘spotlight’ created by a brilliant white dust cloud. As a technique for drawing attention to the central figure it would almost seem too obvious, but Leigh makes it work. Also, in true Leigh fashion, the main figure is depicted in a manner of extreme realism in terms of the draftsmanship. Look at the wild eyes and flaring nostrils of the horse, let alone the muscular flanks and bone structure. In addition, look at the feathers and lovingly rendered saddle blanket – here is virtuosity for its own sake.
The Indian frames his own formidable profile with both his right arm and the dust kicked up by the horse. More important, look at the line of torso and the precisely detailed capturing of his rib cage and shoulder muscles. Or look at the fingers holding the bunched coil of rope. My love for Western artists Charles Russell and Frederic Remington is second-to-none, but this level of exactitude was outside of their purview. The central figure of this painting is a remarkable performance.
As with the other pictures we have looked at, Leigh renders the supporting figures in softer focus, almost an Impressionist style. The landscape itself is only the merest hint of actual countryside, and the horses and other Indians are carefully constructed suggestions.
But the real thing about this picture is the coloration. Looking at The Leader’s Downfall over a protracted period of time may make your eyeballs fat. Here is a man who loves color and is not afraid to use it. The overarching blue, purple, violet tones are underscored by the hot white of the upswept dust, and Leigh manages to create “hot” action with “cool” colors. It’s impossible not to look at this remarkable picture with a deep respect for both the artist’s skill and his audacity.
More William Leigh tomorrow!