We end our week-long look at the West of William R. Leigh (1866 –1955) with Walpi, Arizona, Hopi Reservation, painted in 1912. This is oil on canvas, 22 x 33, currently housed in the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa.
We had discussed how Leigh captured an other-worldly quality with is picture Afterglow Over the Zuni River, and I believe he manages to do the same thing here. What is perhaps amazing, though, is that he does not need the dramatic coloration of dusk or the moon and a shimmering star to capture that sense of the uncanny; rather, he manages to convey a sense of mystery with a stark depiction of natural surroundings and a sense of remoteness.
Readers unfamiliar with Walpi would be interested to learn that it is a village in Navajo County, Arizona, inhabited by the Hopi-speaking Pueblo Indians. Walpi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the United States; even today several of it inhabitants live without electricity or running water. The overall Hopi Reservation is a system of villages based on three mesas (flatlands atop of mountains) and Walpi (the First Mesa) established in 1690. (There is a photo of the actual site below, dating from 1920.)
Leigh was fascinated by the First Mesa, painting countless studies of it and sometimes going up to the mesa “between two and four o’clock at night to paint moonlight effects.”
We previously noted Leigh’s European training and his brilliant sense of color, both apparent in Walpi. As Stephen Gjerston notes in his excellent Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, The emphasis of the German school was generally on form rather than color, the latter tending to be dark, heavy and rather dull, the so-called brown school that attempted to imitate certain works of the older Spanish, Flemish and Italian masters. But that didn’t seem to affect Leigh, who was apparently one of those rare individuals gifted with a natural eye for seeing color. Even in his early work the color was more brilliant and natural than that used by most German painters.
But let’s look at Walpi and examine why it is so evocative. I’m sure that many readers, if not told it depicted an American Indian site, would have conjectured that it was a painting of some fairy tale place or the remote keep mentioned in a fantasy novel. Like many pictures of the sublime, there is something decidedly uncanny in the overall effect.
Part of that, of course, if Leigh’s use of scale. The small figure walking towards the village is in the distance – the village itself, further away still, is enormous. (Another Native American woman, closer to the village, is little more than a red dot.)
Also dramatic are the cliff walls surrounding the mesa. Leigh does not satisfy himself with a sheer drop; rather, these are moss-covered outcroppings alternately bleached by the sun or sucking up the ambient color. The sense of the great desert surrounding the village (almost blue like the sea), also lends an air of remoteness and unreality to the composition.
Coloration, too, adds to the air of enchantment: dusk lends a bluish tint to the world, allowing dramatic shafts of sunlight to illuminate distant columns.
Leigh abandons his usual technique of a realistically depicting a central figure and rendering the rest suggestively – here, most everything is created on a range of Impressionism unusual in much of his work. I think that this is perhaps because one of the more realistic, anchor figures that he places in many of his pictures would ruin the effect. Like Afterglow Over the Zuni River the absence of people are essential to the dream-like effect.
There are many other works in the William Leigh corpus. If you are interested in seeing more, please let me know.