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 William Robinson Leigh  (1866 - 1955)

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Lived/Active: New York/Maryland/West Virginia / Germany      Known for: frontier genre, landscape and animal paintings

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born near Falling Waters, West Virginia on a plantation a year after the Civil War, and raised in Baltimore, William Leigh became one of the foremost painters of the American West with a career of seventy-five years. Some people referred to him as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt".

He was the son of impoverished Southern aristocrats and took his first art training at age 14 from Hugh Newell (1830-1915) at the Maryland Institute where he was regarded as one of the best students in his class. From 1883 to 1895, he studied in Europe, mainly at the Royal Academy in Munich with Ludwig Loefftz. From 1891 to 1896, he painted six cycloramas or murals in the round, a giant German panorama.

In 1896, he began working as a magazine illustrator in New York City for Scribner's and Collier's Weekly Magazine, and he also painted portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes. However, he was not a very successful artist in those years in New York.

Trips to the Southwest began in 1906 when he made an agreement with William Simpson, Santa Fe Railway advertising manager, to paint the Grand Canyon in exchange for free transportation West. In 1907, he completed his Grand Canyon painting, which led to many more commissions and an extensive painting trip through Arizona and New Mexico. These travels inspired him to paint western subjects for the next 50 years, but it was not until the 1940s that he received much recognition. He painted in the Southwest nearly every summer between 1912 and 1926 and focused on the Hopi and Navajo Indians.

In 1910, he traveled to Wyoming, where he painted in Yellowstone Park and did sketches, many which he later converted into large canvases such as Lower Falls of the Yellowstone (1915) and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1911).

His style was realistic, and his palette invariably had the Southwestern hues of soft pinks, reds, yellows and purples. In fact, his critics who knew little of the Southwest accused him of fabricating the colors.

As an older man he was described as a big, powerful man with gray hair and a white handlebar mustache and a deep base voice. He was highly opinionated and absolutely hated modern, abstract art. During the latter part of his career, he painted a series of American historical murals as well as paintings based on his travels to Africa funded by the Eastman Kodak Company and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For many years, his work was handled exclusively in New York at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel.

Many of his works are at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In March, 1999, the Historical Center of Cody, Wyoming held an exhibition of his field sketches and finished works depicting his experiences near Cody, Wyoming in the early part of the century, between 1910 and 1921. These years, many which he spent painting in the Carter Mountain vicinity, were considered crucial to his artistic development because he was exposed to western landscape. His companion during these travels was Cody taxidermist Will Richard who stirred his interest in wildlife.

Source:
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peggy and Harold Samuels, Artists of the American West
Peter Hassrick, Drawn to Yellowstone


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William R. Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia in 1866 and spent his boyhood on a farm. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the Maryland Institute in Baltimore to begin his art training. Although from a very poor family, he managed to spend twelve years in Europe where he studied at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. Upon returning to the United States he opened a studio in New York and did illustrations for "Scribner's Magazine". It was not until he was forty years old that he was able to see the West which had occupied his thoughts for such a long time. His bold use of color depicted the clear light and brilliant hues of the West as he saw it. It was during this phase of his career that he came to be known as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt".

In 1921 Leigh married Ethel Traphagen, a women's clothing designer, and together they established the successful Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City.

In 1926 and 1928 he made two trips to Africa. On these trips he did many paintings of big game, and returning to New York he did the backgrounds for animal habitat groups. He painted in the Southwest nearly every summer between 1912 and 1926. His style was realistic and his palette invariably had the Southwestern hues of soft pinks, reds, yellows and purples. In fact, his critics who knew little of the Southwest accused him of fabricating the colors. He died in 1955.

Written and submitted by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.

Sources:
American Art Review, 1999
From the internet, AskART.com

Biography from Art Cellar Exchange:

William Robinson Leigh is best known for his portrayal of the Southwestern United States and its inhabitants, especially the native people of the Zuni, Hopi and Navajo tribes.  Although W.R. Leigh was born in West Virginia, his mother's ancestral line included the Native American Princess, Pocahontas.  Leigh's knowledge of this tie led him to deeply empathize with Native Americans and later prompted him to depict their lives and stories on canvas.  He captured the beauty and simplicity of their everyday lives against the breathtaking backdrop of the desert landscape.  His combination of bold color and the subdued shades of the Southwest earned him the title "Sagebrush Rembrandt."

Leigh's love of sketching and capturing the visual imagery of the world around him inspired his mother to send him to the Maryland Institute when he was 14.  Leigh enjoyed the challenge art school offered him and spent many hours in the gardens of Baltimore carefully rendering images of the plants and wildlife.  In 1883, Leigh continued his studies in Munich with the painting instructor Ludwig Loeffitz.  Here, Leigh was exposed to the dark, rich palette of masters such as Rembrandt.  In 1906, at the bequest of a friend from Munich, Leigh made his first trip to the Southwest.  To fund his train fare westward, Leigh struck a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad to paint images of the Grand Canyon for their advertising.

Leigh's deal with the railroad was an incredible opportunity.  Not only did he travel west, but he was also commissioned for five additional paintings.  After their completion, he traveled to Arizona, the Dakotas and eventually Wyoming.  In 1912, he was introduced to Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, who owned a trading post in Ganado, Arizona.  Hubbell was a great friend of the Navajo Nation, and introduced Leigh to its people and way of life.  Leigh instantly connected with the celebration of the land and all that it offered its inhabitants.  He was invited to witness ceremonial dances and rituals of the Navajo.  This connection with and awareness of the lifestyles of the Native American people of the Southwest gives Leigh's pieces a poignancy and accuracy that few other artists of his genre possess.

Leigh moved to New York, and was taken on by first the Snedecor and Babcock Gallery, and later by the Grand Central Gallery as an illustrator of the American West.  He viewed the current Abstract Expressionist trend as cold and elitist and strived to bring the warmth and joy of human life to the public through his work.  His success in this mission occurred when he met and fell in love with the fashion designer, Ethel Traphagen, and together they opened the highly successful Traphagen School of Fashion in New York.  Leigh offered classes in figure drawings at the school, and his skill as an artist combined with his kind hearted enthusiasm for his students drew new attention to his work.

In the late twenties Leigh journeyed to Africa twice in order find material to complete a mural commission for Eastman Kodak and the American Museum of Natural History.  These two murals raised even more public awareness, and by the 1930s and 40s Leigh was an established and successful artist.  He continued to work well into his eighties and his art only improved with age.  After his death in 1955, the Grand Central Gallery ran one final tribute to Leigh, who had become something of a Western legend.  His faithful wife Ethel made his works available to the public through donation to museums.  Today, collections of Leigh's art can be seen at the Gilcrease Museum, Huntington Museum, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, the Amon Carter Museum, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Leigh's evocative use of color and touching scenes of daily lives continue to draw viewers in, as climbing auction prices attest.  His sensitivity as an artist and compassion as a human being are evident in his tender depictions of Native American women in their humble routines.  The spirit of the Southwest that Leigh draws upon is as soft as the wind that whispers through the canyons.  It is not the image of gunfights and heroes, but the exquisite beauty of the life that blooms under the stark desert sky.
 
 
 


Biography from Thomas Nygard Gallery:
WILLIAM ROBINSON LEIGH (1866-1955)

William R. Leigh, born in 1866 in Berkeley County, West Virginia, began his formal study of art at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, at the age of fourteen. After three years at the Institute, he went to Munich, Germany, where he studied at the Royal Academy for twelve years, and took the annual medal six times in succession. He also assisted in the painting of six cycloramas. Commemorating the 6th anniversary of the one in Einsiedeln, Switzerland, he received an illuminated parchment citation in 1953.

In 1906, at the age of forty, after ten years in the United States as an illustrator for leading magazines, he headed for the Southwest for the study of Indians, cowboys and animals. Under the inspiration of repeated trips to Arizona, New Mexico, as well as the Dakotas, Wyoming and other northern Rocky Mountain states, he produced many pictures owned by important collectors all over the United States and in foreign countries, including the Duke of Windsor and the late King Albert of the Belgians.

Mr. Leigh accompanied Carl Akeley to Africa in 1926 and the Carlisle-Clark expedition to Africa in 1928, each time as artist for the collection of material for the Akeley African hall in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. From 1932 to 1935 he had charge of the painting of the background in the African Hall at the time of its construction. Some of his best known work is immortalized in this hall.

Among his honors are: 1950-1951, Scroll Award, New York city Federation of Women's Clubs, 1951, Citation, Kappa Pi National Art Fraternity, 1953, Benjamin West Clinedinst Memorial Medal for outstanding achievement in fine arts, 1954, first recipient of the newly created Alumni Honor Medal of Maryland Institute, Baltimore, as most outstanding graduate, 1954, Conservation Award of the National Life Conservation Society, as distinguished wildlife artist, and 1955, elected Academician, National Academy of Design.

With other books and articles, Leigh is the author of THE WESTERN PONY, and FRONTIERS OF ENCHANTMENT.

The Leigh studio and related ephemera is installed at the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma where over 500 paintings and 300 drawings are held. Other collections include: Woolaroc Museum in Oklahoma; Newark Museum; Heckscher Foundation; Department of External Affairs, Iveagh House, Dublin, Ireland; Huntington Museum, New York; the IBM Collection, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.

Biography from Nedra Matteucci Galleries:
WILLIAM R. LEIGH (1866-1955)

William Robinson Leigh was born in West Virginia in 1866. His mother encouraged him to develop his talents for art and sent him to Baltimore to attend art. There he learned the first principles of perspective along with the logic behind drawing.

In 1883, he continued his art training at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, and after twelve years emerged with a strong background which included an emphasis on draftsmanship.

Upon his return to the United States Leigh worked as an illustrator for Scribner's and McClure's magazines but with little passion or fulfillment. In the summer of 1906, Leigh accepted an invitation from a former Munich classmate, Albert Groll, to visit Laguna, New Mexico. During that first trip to the Southwest, Leigh realized he had found his true inspiration. His return to painting nature and genre scenes, an emphasis of his training in Munich, would enable him to overcome his artistic discouragement and financial instability.

Leigh continued working for the magazines though he realized he was known as an illustrator rather than a painter. Unable to sell his paintings he decided to join the Snedecor and Babcock Gallery in New York, which focused on genre scenes and Western art. The union proved successful for several years.

Although Leigh continued to paint throughout his life and made over 25 visits to the Southwest, financial constraints created by WWI necessitated that he supplement his income by teaching and writing. The mid 1930's were the most productive period in his life, and he enjoyed the long- awaited national recognition as a leading western artist. During this time he received critical acclaim for his paintings and was honored with a one-person show by Grand Central Art Galleries during the 1939 World's Fair.

The most coveted honor of his career came in 1955 when was elected National Academician, a distinction denied to many Western artists.

W.R. Leigh is represented in numerous prestigious collections of western art including the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, Indianapolis, Indiana; the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville, Oklahoma.


Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery Santa FeTucson:
William R. Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia in 1866. Deciding upon a career in art quite early, Leigh enrolled in classes at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, in 1880, spending three years there before moving to Munich, where he studied at the Royal Academy for over a decade, leaving in 1895. While at the Academy, he won the annual medal for painting six times in a row.

Returning to the United States, Leigh settled in New York City, where he made illustrations for Scribner's and Collier's magazines. He became well-established as an illustrator, but both the nature of the work and the limited subject matter made him anxious for new challenges. In 1906, an opportunity to expand the scope of his work came about when the Sante Fe Railroad offered him free passage into the West in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. Leigh accepted the offer and, at age forty, set off through New Mexico and Arizona on a trip that yielded not just the Grand Canyon piece he had been commissioned to do, but five more canvases that were purchased by the railroad.

His focus was on the changing light of the Southwest, the pinks and purples that come into being when the sun sets over the mountain ranges of Arizona and New Mexico. Half-jokingly referred to as "The Sagebrush Rembrandt," Leigh traveled to the Southwest many more times to paint the landscape and people, though he never moved there permanently. In fact, he led a sort of dual life, as he and his wife, Ethel Traphagen, opened the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York, which taught clothing design courses. The school was cutting-edge, its owner and students claiming responsibility for introducing shorts and slacks to women's wear lines.

Leigh traveled all over the West, painting the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Forest. His primary area of interest, however, was the Hopi and Navajo Indians, who he painted everysummer from 1912 to 1926. In 1926 he took his first of two trips to Africa, though African subjects never permeated his work as thoroughly as Southwestern subjects. A successful illustrator, Leigh started to experience real success as a fine artist starting in the early 1940s. A large and robust man, he was a vehement opponent of Modernist painting.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, IV:
During his career, William Robinson Leigh was both an illustrator and a painter, best known for his paintings of plains, mountains, canyons, and other Western landscapes and themes. Leigh is referred to by some as the “Sagebrush Rembrandt,” due to his use of traditional European techniques in his painting of the American West.

Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia, in 1866. He began his formal art training at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore at the age of fourteen. When he was seventeen, he traveled to Munich, Germany, where he successfully studied at the Royal Academy for twelve years.

Returning to New York City in 1896, Leigh became an illustrator for Scribner’s and Collier’s magazines. He also painted portraits, landscapes, and compositions with both human and animal figures. In his observances, Leigh realized that artists had not yet fully represented the West as it should have been. Subsequently, in 1906, at the age of 40, Leigh persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to give him free transportation for his first trip West, in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. As a result of his work, five more paintings were commissioned, allowing Leigh more freedom to truly capture the spirit of the Southwest.

Maintaining a realistic style, Leigh’s palette incorporated a bold use of color while emphasizing the soft hues of the Southwest. In his 1941 piece, "Looking for Sheep", Leigh utilizes his technique to show a one-of-a-kind sky; pink, billowing clouds; and cascading mountainside.

It was during the 1940s that Leigh received national recognition as a leader in Western art. W.R. Leigh died in New York City, in 1955. A few collections that feature W.R. Leigh can be found in: The Gilcrease Museum, Oklahoma; Amon Carter Museum, Texas; National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma; Huntington Museum, New York; and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Wyoming.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
WILLIAM ROBINSON LEIGH (1866-1955)

Lauded as one of the foremost painters of the American West, William Robinson Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia. Although his family struggled financially, arrangements were made for William, who showed promising artistic aptitude, to begin classes at the Maryland Institute of Art at the age of 14.  Following three years in Baltimore, Leigh entered the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany; he would pursue a European education for the next dozen years, studying under noted instructors and developing a sophisticated academic approach.

Upon his return to America, Leigh established himself as an illustrator, contributing to Scribner's and Collier’s among other periodicals. He also painted portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes.  It was not until he reached the age of forty, however, that Leigh found his calling. Fulfilling a long-held dream, in 1906 Leigh contracted with the Santa Fe Railroad for free transportation to the southwestern United States in exchange for a series of paintings of the Grand Canyon to be used in the company’s advertisements. From that time forward, scenes of the western landscape and its people—cowboys, Native Americans, miners, and frontiersmen—occupied the artist’s brush. Characterized by bold color, these works eventually won Leigh commercial and critical success, including election to the National Academy of Design. Leigh’s work was widely exhibited during his lifetime and is held in prestigious private and public collections across the country.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.


Biography from The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction:
William R. Leigh was born in West Virginia and spent his boyhood on a farm. At age fourteen he was sent to the Maryland Institute in Baltimore to begin his art training. Although from a very poor family, he managed to spend twelve years in Europe where he studied at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. His work there on murals and panoramas earned him numerous awards.

Upon returning to the U.S., he opened a studio in New York and did illustrations for "Scribner's Magazine". It was not until he was 40 years old that he was able to see the West which had occupied his thoughts for a long time. He was offered free passage to New Mexico in exchange for a painting commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad. The painting was so well received that orders for more soon followed. This enabled him to remain in the Southwest for an extended period, sketching and painting every aspect of life in that region.

His bold use of color depicted the clear light and brillant hues of the West as he saw it. It was during this phase of his career that he came to be known as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt". In 1921 Leigh married Ethel Traphagen, a women's clothing designer, and together they established the successful Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City.

In 1926 and 1928, he made two trips to Africa. On these trips he did many paintings of big game, and returning to New York he did the backgrounds for animal habitat groups in Akeley African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History. After his death, Leigh's widow presented his entire studio to the Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Biography from Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site:
William Robinson Leigh was an important traditional Western painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer who was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia on September 23, 1866.  As the son of an impoverished Southern aristocratic family, Leigh was educated privately. 

He studied art under Hugh Newell at Maryland Institute in Baltimore, from 1880 to 1883.  He then went to the Raupp-Royal Academy in Munich from 1883 to 1884. He was the pupil of Gysis from 1885 to 1886, of Löfftz in 1887 and of Lindenschmid from 1891 to 1892.  He painted six cycloramas (murals in the round) between 1891 and 1896. 

Leigh returned to New York City in 1896, after thirteen years in Europe, becoming an illustrator for Scribner's and Collier's, and painting portraits, landscapes and compositions with figures and animals.  He was not successful despite his courtly manner, this "big man with big mustaches and a goatee."

In 1906 Leigh persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to give him free transportation for his first trip West, in exchange for a painting.  Five more paintings were commissioned, permitting Leigh to make an elaborate sketching trip through Arizona and New Mexico.  His critics who had not seen the West said that the resulting paintings were of "purple horses with yellow bellies," a "ridiculously false color," and only illustrations.  It was not until the 1940s that Leigh's Western work was completely accepted.  In that period of forty years, he had depicted "every facet of the West, from wild horses to Navajos, and from wolf hunts to burro trains."  He also painted African wild animals, participating in 1926 and 1928 expeditions for the American Museum of Natural History.  

After his death on March 11, 1955, the contents of his studio were donated by his widow to the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  The Gilcrease exhibited Leigh's studio-gallery to the public in Tulsa on November 7, 1964 with five-hundred-thirty-four oils, three-hundred-forty-four charcoals, and many sketches in a special gallery.  The matter was arranged by the then-director of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Dean Krakel.

REFERENCES

Ainsworth, Ed.  The Cowboy in Art.  New York: The World Publishing Co.  1968.

Falk, Peter Hastings.  Who Was Who in American Art.  Connecticut: Sound View Press.  1985.  

Samuels, Peggy and Harold.  Samuels' Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West.  New Jersey: Castle.  1985.


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William Leigh is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painters of Grand Canyon
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Paris Pre 1900
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Western Painters



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