|William Robinson Leigh - Sophie Hunter Colston (1896) - oil on canvas 72³⁄₈ X 40⁷⁄₈ in.|
In each museum I frequent, I develop "friends" in the permanent collection. These are the works that, if I do not visit with them, my trip to the museum feels incomplete.
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., I have many of these "friends." There are works by John Singer Sargent, Abbott Handerson Thayer, John White Alexander, Cecilia Beaux, Edmund Tarbell, Albert Herter, William Sergeant Kendall, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing, that I look for each time I call on the gallery.
But there is one other painting that stands out to me in the Museum's collection, one that I always look forward to seeing. It is the portrait of Sophie Hunter Colston by artist William Robinson Leigh. The crispness of the work is brilliant, and I was quite struck with it when first I saw it, but when I sought out more paintings by this then-new-to-me artist, I was surprised to find that Leigh did few portraits and was instead better know for his paintings of the American West.
Though William Robinson Leigh's sustained success as a painter did not come until he was already in his seventies, his was not a case of, "nice guys finish last." By accounts, he was a thoroughly unlikeable character, who would have reached prominence at a younger age had he not been so difficult to be around. He was a racist, and a bigot, and often inflated his self-importance, boasting to others of his greatness as a painter, author, actor, poet, philosopher, and explorer.¹ In many ways, it seems a shame that so much actual talent was bestowed upon so base a man.
Both of his parents were members of the Southern Aristocracy, but by the time William was born, September 23, 1866, the family's once opulent estate in West Virginia had been destroyed by the Civil War. They were destitute, and life was not easy for young William, whom the family came to consider as the "fool with a faculty for drawing."² His mother, too proud to send William to public school, and too impoverished to send him to a private school, had the boy educated, poorly, at home. His father, a former naval officer who only wedded William's mother because she initially brought money to the marriage, often beat the boy for displaying laziness and hostility.³ Not surprisingly, William preferred the company of the farm animals to that of his relatives, and it could be that during his time with the farm creatures, he first began his education as an artist, studying the animals which would become a strong aspect of his future artworks.
At the age of 14, perhaps as an act of pity, an uncle brought William to Baltimore and paid for the young man's tuition to the Maryland School of Art. There Leigh studied under watercolorist Hugh Newell, who saw promise in the boy's work. With financial supplements from collector W.W. Corcoran, who also noticed Leigh's skill, and with money earned as a teaching assistant, Leigh continued his studies in Maryland for three years. At 16, Newell encouraged Leigh to continue his studies in Europe, where all Americans went to be thoroughly trained.
Leigh wanted to study in Paris, as Newell had done, but at $900 a year, the price was prohibitive. Instead, he travelled to Munich, where he could attend the Royal Academy of Fine Arts for $300 a year, a fee another uncle was willing to pay for the teenager. The training in Germany was more "stiffly realistic"⁴ than Leigh would have preferred, but the education was good, and he gained much from his 13 hours of drawing each day, six days a week.
After three years in Munich, Leigh's family, who still considered William to be a "freak,"⁵ were no longer able or willing to support the young man in his education. Leigh was encouraged to quit, but he refused to speed up his studies or curtail his spending. He was prepared to return home to find a teaching position, and save money for another year in Germany, but instead he secured work as a panoramist and was able to stay longer at the Royal Academy.
In 1896, after more than twelve years in Germany, Leigh finally returned to America, ready to make his mark. Unfortunately for the thirty-year-old, America was not interested in a painter who was, "long on drawing ability, draftsmanship, masterful manipulation of paint, and excessive detailing, but short on imagination and feeling."⁶
With only $40 in his pocket, and trying to make it in New York City, Leigh was forced to seek out illustration work, something he hoped he would never have to do. At Scribner's Magazine, he was able to secure work at $100 a page, a top rate for the time. His attention to detail earned him the label "Buttons and Shoestrings,"⁷ and as such work was more welcome in illustration, he continued in the field for several more years.
Albert Groll, a former fellow student in Munich, approached Leigh in 1906 and invited him on a trip to Laguna, New Mexico, to paint the pueblo there. Leigh, tired of illustration, newly divorced, and unable to obtain portrait commissions, was looking for a change. He convinced the Santa Fe Railroad to transport him out West in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon, and he set out to find fresh new subject matter for his paintings.
"At last," exclaimed Leigh when he reached Laguna, "I was in a land where I was to prove whether I was fit or just a dunderhead!' Newly inspired, Leigh threw himself into his paintings of the American Frontier, and continued working in the genre despite not finding a New York dealer for these paintings until 1913. Critics remained unfriendly, however, reviling Leigh as a "photography-oriented illustrator with a school boy's romantic vision of the West."⁸ Many of these reviewers, unfamiliar with the Southwest, also accused this "Sagebrush Rembrandt" of fabricating the colors in his paintings, not believing such pinks, yellows, reds, and purples actually existed in nature.
During War War I, Leigh once again found himself without commissions. He sought acting work, but had no luck there either. Eventually, he became a painter of theatrical backdrops.
In 1921, Leigh remarried. His second wife, Ethel Traphagen (1882-1963), was a fashion illustrator, and together, the two founded, in 1923, the Traphagen School of Design in New York City.
Leigh was teaching a class in illustration at the Traphagen School in 1925 when he heard that the American Museum of Natural History was seeking an artist to join conservationist Carl Akeley on an expedition to Africa. Leigh obtained the position, and upon his return, was retained as supervisor of habitat painting in the Akeley African Hall from 1932 to 1935. In 1936, the Hall opened, and is still considered one of the greatest museum displays in the world.
Despite never learning to spell properly, it was during this period that Leigh wrote and published several books. The first of these was a drama claiming that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. The second, The Western Pony, was published in 1933, and was one of the best books of the year. The third book was about his trips to Africa with the Museum of Natural History, and it became a best seller.⁹
Leigh was finally financially able to return to painting full time in 1938, and six years later, at the age of 78, he was being hailed as "the last great painter of the Old West."¹⁰ After outliving his contemporaries Frederic Remington (1861-1909) and Charles Russell (1864-1926), William Robinson Leigh was at last getting attention for his Western paintings. A solo exhibition of his work in 1944 was covered by 200 newspapers, and the detailed realism and staid compositions in his art that once hindered his career, were now selling points. One reviewer wrote that in Leigh's paintings, there was "no freakishness, no Freudian impulses wild-brushed for effete critics."¹¹ Another wrote, "His principal admirers are not critics but western enthusiasts and anthropologists. They like his photographic realism and painstaking authenticity."¹² After World War II, the popularity of Western Art increased, and Leigh did his best to keep up with demand.
By 1955, Leigh's output had dropped to one painting every couple of months, far short of the 32 paintings he produced in 1950 when he was 84. On March 11th, he worked all day in his 57th Street studio in New York City¹², then headed to bed, where he died in his sleep. He was 88 years old.
¹ Fabian, Daniel, Harold Samuels, Joan Samuels, and Peggy Samuels, Techniques of the Artists of the American West, (The Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, NJ, 1990), p. 141.
⁴ ibid., p. 142.
⁸ ibid., p. 143
¹¹ ibid., p. 144.