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William Robinson Leigh (American, 1866-1955)


Also known as:  Leigh, William

William Robinson Leigh was born in 1866 and grew up in rural West Virginia where he showed a very early aptitude for art. Born into a family that had lost their fortune in the Civil War, Leigh was able to attend the Maryland Institute in Baltimore at the age of fourteen through the generosity of his aunt and uncle. He excelled at the institute and left to study at the Royal Academy in Munich only a few years later. He studied in Germany for another 12 years and returned to America with a mastery of the techniques of the Old European masters. While he had long dreamed of venturing into the American West to stoke his artistic imagination, the necessity of earning a living led to his decade long work as an illustrator for the leading illustrated publications of the day, such as Collier's and Scribner's. Like his contemporary Frederic Remington, Leigh bristled at the constraints and lack of creativity in terms of subject matter and style that were necessary in the illustration market. He felt that his true artistic talent would not reach its full potential until he could put aside his work as an illustrator.

In 1897, he had made a brief trip to Wyoming for Scribner's magazine to gather material for a story on western wheat farmers. That trip whetted his appetite for more travels in the West, but economic necessity would keep him away from fulfilling that dream until 1906, when he entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Santa Fe Railroad. In exchange for free passage to the Southwest, Leigh agreed to paint images of the Grand Canyon and other western subjects for use in the Railroad's advertising campaigns. Leigh had been invited by a friend from his Munich days to visit Laguna, New Mexico, and his contract with the Santa Fe railroad allowed him to spend several weeks soaking up the Southwestern landscape and culture. That initial trip was profoundly influential on his career and development as an artist. During the next several years, he traveled extensively in the Southwest, including the Yellowstone territory of Wyoming and Montana. While both Remington and Russell had highly successful but relatively brief careers, Leigh captured the beauty and drama of the American West with consistent quality for almost fifty years. In many ways his career marked the end of one era, the nineteenth century heyday of the great western illustrators and eye-witness artists, and the beginning of another, the modern era of contemporary western artists.

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