DescriptionWILLIAM ROBINSON LEIGH (American, 1866-1955)
Land of Navaho (Young Indian Goat Herder), 1948
Oil on canvas
45 x 60 inches (114.3 x 152.4 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: W.R. Leigh 1948 ©
Titled on labels verso
Bears artist's stamps on original frame verso
PROPERTY FROM THE JUDSON C. BALL AND NANCY SUE BALL FINE ART COLLECTION
Joan B. Steiniger;
Estate of the above;
Owings Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
J. DuBois, W.R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography, Kansas City, Missouri, 1977, p. 108-9, illustrated.
In 1912 W.R. Leigh, who had built his early career illustrating for New York magazines, first experienced the Native American culture of Arizona, a seismic moment that redirected his art production for the next forty years. Eager to establish himself as a landscape and genre painter, Leigh had ventured to the West in 1906 under the auspices of the Santa Fe Railway, imaging scenes of the Grand Canyon for its advertising campaign. This commission led to his 1912 trip to Ganado, Arizona, where he befriended the guide and interpreter Don Lorenzo Hubbell, whose trading post served as a hub for Anglo writers and artists and Native American craftsmen. Through Hubbell, Leigh gained access to the local sites and tribes: he climbed high into the Canyon de Chelly, 700 feet above the Painted Desert, documenting its red sandstone cliffs and mesas in thousands of drawings, even working at night to study the effects of moonlight on the rocks; he met some of the Hopi who lived in these cliffs, observing their basket weavers and potters and participating in their Kachina ceremonial dances; and further north in the Monument Valley region, he visited the Navajo reservation, where he admired artisans and sheep and goat herders, observed a child burial, and ate lamb stew with tribe leaders. Indeed, it was the stuff of everyday Indian life -- craft making, caring for children, hunting and cooking, and tending animals -- that formed the foundation of Leigh's powerful paintings of the Southwest, which he translated from field sketches back in his New York studio.
One of the rituals that Leigh most enjoyed on his annual summer expeditions to Arizona from 1912-26 was accompanying a young Navajo goatherd, Natsilid Naeshje, on his daily rounds. Using his sketches from this period, Leigh imaged Natsilid numerous times over four decades, for example, in the 1916 panoramic Land of His Fathers, the basis for the current lot, the monumental 1948 Land of Navaho (Young Indian Goat Herder); in the 1916 Navaho Boy and Flocks; and in the 1920 and 1953 portraits Navaho Shepherd Boy. In his short story "A Day with a Navaho Shepherd," Leigh describes his first encounter with the Naeshje family home, the setting for the featured Land of Navaho:
[Their] hogan stood in the midst of a sage-covered treeless waste, dominated by Navaho Mountain, from which, according to Navaho tradition, the race had sprung. Nearby a low sandstone up-cropping constituted the reason for the selection of the site; its undulating surfaces, all seamed and grooved with eons of erosion, held deep pockets, some of which retained rainwater for long periods. (W.R. Leigh, "A Day with a Navaho Shepherd," Scribner's, New York, 1922).
He then goes on to introduce Natsilid:
He was not very big to be the guardian spirit of a herd of three hundred and thirty-six goats and sheep with only the aid of two mongrel dogs and a pinto burro. In fact, he was only about seven years old (his parents were not sure whether it was seven or eight corn-crops since his birth) and not big for his age. In the wild, rugged reaches of the Painted Desert where his home was, there were difficulties and dangers to be reckoned with. Doubtless his work accounted for a quaint seriousness in his bearing. . . he was like a tiny little man, with a businesslike way of attending to duties. . . and forgetting no part of them.
Leigh also commemorates Natsilid and his natural setting in several verses of his 1912 poem, "The Painted Desert":
Ah! The lonesome, lonesome places
Of that wan, wide, wasted land,
Where on crazy, crooked bases
Giant boulders balanced stand.
Where fantastic spurs and spires,
And titanic mesas rise,
Tinged as by satanic fires
High against cerulean skies.
Where the Navaho is wending
Up the boulder-covered steep,
With his mongrel canine tending
Sploched and spotted goats and sheep.
(W.R. Leigh, "The Painted Desert," 1912, Files of Dean Krakel)
According to the biographer June DuBois, "Leigh found Natsilid's talent for recognizing his own goats and sheep uncanny. When he and the boy returned them to their corral, no Naeshje creature was missing, no mean accomplishment at the end of a day that had been filled with the drama of massed stampedes, billy goat battles, and marauding wolves." (J. DuBois, W.R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography, Kansas City, 1977, p. 102). Over the years, Leigh and Natsilid became friends, the small boy representing to him the resourcefulness, intelligence, and strength of the Navajo people.
Land of Navaho (Young Indian Goat Herder) stands as one of Leigh's most majestic paintings of Native American culture, where the landscape, man, and animals each play important roles. With his hallmark Southwestern palette and atmospheric lighting, Leigh renders the soft pinks of the sandstone cliffs set against a brilliant blue sky at midday, and he suggests the ruggedness and awesomeness of the terrain through bulbous stone outcroppings and a deep canyon that stretches far into the distance. Undaunted by the precipitous setting, Natsilid and his watchful dog calmly sit on a ledge high above the goat herd, the boy, a symbol of Indian heroism, as he gazes off toward the horizon. Forming the base of a triangle with Natsilid at the apex are the goats below, restless and pinned in by nature, a deliberate contrast to their serene master. In part thanks to his Wyoming taxidermist friend, Will Richard, Leigh was a skilled painter of animals, notably horses, buffalos, and bears; here, he not only precisely renders the anatomy of the goats, but also anthropomorphizes them, featuring a reclining white elder, a father rearing up to discipline his son (or two vying male suitors), a scared youngster who has wandered too close to the cliff's edge, and a mother dutifully nursing her baby.
That Leigh painted Land of Navaho (Young Indian Goat Herder) in 1948 when he was eighty-two is no surprise, as he was incredibly prolific and relishing his greatest artistic recognition during his last decade. Often in the 1940s he recreated compositions from his earlier career, including the 1916 Land of His Fathers, which became the present Land of Navaho, expanded from its original 37 x 50" scale to 44.5 x 60". When Leigh exhibited Land of His Fathers at New York's Snedecor/Babcock Gallery in 1917, critics, who were favoring recent modernist trends, complained that Leigh's style was reminiscent of detailed illustration art and not painterly enough. Ironically, over thirty years later, critics reviewing Leigh's work at major retrospective exhibitions at the Grand Central Art Galleries, New York, now praised him as the "last great painter of the old west" and the "only living member of the Remington-Russell-Leigh trio" (D. Cummins, William Robinson Leigh, Western Artist, Norman, Oklahoma, 1980, p. 154). No doubt's Land of Navaho, with its exquisite synthesis of detail and atmosphere, graphic patterns and vibrant color, and energized and static forms, helped Leigh achieve one of his greatest dreams - designation as a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1955, the year he died.
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