One last picture from William R. Leigh (1866-1955) before we allow him to ride off into the great Western sunset reserved for American artists of the first rank. Above is Leigh’s color study of the Grand Canyon, painted in 1909. This is a smallish picture, 16 x 12, oil on canvas board. It is a stunning landscape that perfectly captures the majesty and mystery of the American landscape.
Once again, I’m indebted to artist/author Stephen Gjerston and his magisterial Frontiers of Enchantment: The Outdoor Studies of William R. Leigh for what may be the best summation of Leigh and his work: Leigh’s artistic legacy rests primarily on his paintings of the West and Southwest which he painted in his New York studio. The convincing sense of reality that he achieved in the best of them is due, in large measure, to the excellence of the outdoor studies which he used as sources of information. The majority of these studies are masterpieces of their kind. They have an intensity and immediacy that can only be achieved by a fine artist, with a sensitive eye, in the presence of nature. Through unerring draftsmanship and an acute eye for color values Leigh has fixed on these panels the form and atmosphere of the frontiers he loved….
A few words about Grand Canyon. Many contemporary artists depicting the West fall back on trite-and-true tropes garnered in revisionist Westerns that sought to render the time and place as squalid, muddy and barren. Actually, the colorful panorama that was the real West would present a challenge to the most extravagant colorist and the most gifted of artists. The West of Leigh was much like that of fellow-artist Charlie Russell – a place of wonder and of marvels, where nature ran riot with color and the world is once again young.
This color study is the kind of thing upon which Leigh would spend his days out West, painting in the open air and finding just that magical mix of color and light. His brush is heavily loaded with paint, and the brush strokes are particularly evident in the clouds. The peaks in the distance merge with the blue of the sky, making the horizon (and our horizon) a thing infinite and mysterious.
But while Leigh is sketchy, he is also exact. Never if there a misplaced stroke, a piece of scenery that is unclear or ill-fitting to the composition. This is nature transformed into art by the hand of a master.
It was somehow fitting to end the celebration of our nation’s birthday with Leigh. His America is indeed a vanished America, and place that now only resides in the dreams of a lucky few. When thinking of the settling of this great land, and of the days of brave pioneers and stalwart settlers, heroic Indians and nature-in-the-raw, spare a thought for the great American artists who helped focus this picture in our mind’s eye, turning natural beauty into national legend.