In his masterful study on William R. Leigh (1866 –1955) Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh, artist/author Stephen Gjerston quotes the artist as saying, “The world is so wonderful, so marvelous … If people would only open their eyes to it. If only they would see the color and enchantment waiting to be discovered right before them.” Words that could be the motto of everyone here at The Jade Sphinx.
After returning to the US following a series of prolonged painting trips to Africa (on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History), Leigh resumed painting his vision of the American West with a vengeance. To do this, Leigh used the hundreds of studies he painted during his many trips there, later making large pictures in his New York studio. His painting method was consistent with his European training:
You start with a detailed charcoal drawing and then paint over that – the most distant things first. If there are no clouds, the sky may take no more than a day. The distant figures may be done in a week. It gets more difficult as you approach the foreground – a large canvas make take four or six months altogether – but the most economical way is to finish as you go.
Today’s picture, Buffalo Drive from 1947, is indeed a large canvas: 6.5 feet x 10.5 feet. It currently resides in the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY. This is an incredibly energetic and dramatic picture, replete with many of Leigh’s signature touches.
First, let’s look at central figure of the Indian carrying the spear. Once again, Leigh does many things to isolate and draw attention to the figure: the Indian is “framed” by the white of his white horse, the patch of white dust at his feet and brown shadow over his shoulder, and the whiteness of his spear. He further underscores the figure with the ornate saddle blanket that creates a pedestal for the muscular torso and detailed posing. (The same saddle blanket used in The Leader's Downfall – how I would have loved to have pawed through Leigh’s collection of props!)
Leigh used these techniques to draw the viewer to his main figure, but that does not mean he stinted the other figures. The buffalo heading right into our line of vision (tongue distended in fright and fatigue) is a little too realistic for our complete comfort, and the Indians to the left of the picture are sculpted by Leigh’s brush with all the subtlety of figures by a Renaissance master. In fact, something about the figures – particularly the left-most four – smack of his European training and influence. The poses are very similar to those of soldiers in Renaissance-era paintings and drawings.
The scene depicted is guaranteed to strike contemporary viewers as gratuitously violent (or perhaps even comedic), but it was not uncommon for American Indians to stampede buffalo off of cliff sides as an easy method of killing them for food, clothing and the hundreds of other necessities they made from the carcass. (This would include thread, hats, needles, tools and even primitive painting materials!) The small calf (to the right of our fatigued buffalo) strikes a particular note of pathos – the struggle for survival can be extraordinarily unsentimental.
If we could overlook the exceptional draftsmanship of the piece (no small task), we would then be seduced by Leigh’s fabulous sense of color. The buffalo are little more than carefully manipulated splotches of color (particularly those in the background), but Leigh manages to use color to carefully delineate each and every animal. And the blue of his sky and the bright earth tones both on top and at the bottom of the cliff further frame the main action.
Despite the brutality of this picture, I find it still inescapably romantic. Leigh shows the struggle for survival, but his heightened coloration gives the scene a sense of showbiz razzmatazz.
Many figures of the West – Buffalo Bill Cody comes to mind – were fully aware of the pageant that they lived through. To those ranks we can add William Robinson Leigh.
More William Leigh tomorrow!