William Robinson Leigh was one of the most prolific and accomplished painters of the American West. He is especially well known for his dramatic paintings of Western plains, mountains, canyons, cavalry, cowboys and Indians.
Born near Falling Waters, West Virginia in 1866, Leigh spent his childhood on a farm. He began his artistic training at age 14, when he went to study under Hugh Newell at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. Despite Leigh's poverty, he was able to go to Europe, and he spent 12 years studying at the Royal Academy in Munich. He studied under Raupp, Gysis, Von Lindenschmidt and Von Loefftz.
The painting technique that Leigh learned and mastered in Germany remained with him throughout his career. He began with a detailed charcoal drawing and painted over it. Starting with the most distant objects, such as the horizon and sky, Leigh slowly painted each object until he reached the foreground.
Leigh's bold colors and clear lighting add to the dramatic intensity of his works. Because he used traditional European techniques in painting the American West, he was known as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt."
Although Leigh had always wanted to paint the American West, it was not until he was around 40 years old that he finally realized his dream. He traveled to Chicago and offered the Santa Fe Railroad Company a painting of the Grand Canyon in exchange for a ride to New Mexico. The company was so pleased with the finished painting that they commissioned five more pictures, giving
Leigh more time to roam the West before he was forced to return to New York City to earn a living. Leigh returned to the West to paint whenever he could.
Back in New York City, Leigh supported himself by illustrating scenes from American history for Scribner's and Collier's. In 1921 he married Ethel Traphagen, a women's clothing designer, and together they founded the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City.
After Leigh's death in 1955, his widow gave his entire collection of work to the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.