DescriptionWilliam Robinson Leigh (American, 1866-1955)
Indian Rider, 1918
Oil on canvas
20 x 16 inches (50.8 x 40.6 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: 1918. W.R. Leigh.
Private collection, Fort Worth, Texas;
By descent to the present owner.
With its high-octane snapshot of an Indian on horseback racing through the light-suffused desert, Indian Rider epitomizes the work of western genre painter William Robinson Leigh. Here, a Plains Indian -- identified by his beaded moccasins and feather hair decoration -- clutches his rifle and leans into his pinto, urging him onward as they flee from a posse on the horizon. Leigh utilizes his trademark pastel palette to render the sagebrush, rocks, and background mesa of the arid landscape, and he further underscores the "heat" of the action through elements in motion -- dust swirling, horse legs pounding, and hair, mane, and leather pants streaming. Painted in 1918, Indian Rider is one of Leigh's earliest paintings to feature what would become his most commercial compositional formula: an up-close image of a single cowboy or Indian on a leaping horse in the middle of a sun-drenched canyon or desert. His biographer described the immediacy of these paintings: "So vivid and realistic is Leigh's rendering of flashing hooves and flying and distorted bodies, both equine and human, that the viewer feels his own perch on the top rail should be abandoned for a view through the knothole" (J. DuBois, W.R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography, Kansas City, 1977, p. 159).
Leigh's penchant for narrative drama harkens back to his early career as an illustrator. After training in realism at the Munich School, the native West Virginian landed in New York City in 1896 with forty dollars to his name, and in order to make ends meet, he readily accepted freelance illustration jobs for Collier's, Harper's, McClure's, and Scribner's. In 1897 he produced ninety-seven illustrations for Scribner's alone, and this attention led to several book commissions, including Walter A. Wyckoff's The Workers: An Experiment in Reality (The West). Whether in works like The Great Railroad Strike, where a frenzied mob torches a train, or The Counterfeiters, where a den of criminals erupts into a brawl, Leigh developed a penchant for the climactic moment of a given scene.
His dream, however, was to leave New York and the illustration business and become a full-fledged painter of the Old West, citing as reasons "his love of animals, his fondness of nature and the unpretentious, a childhood infused with Indian folklore, and above all, his certainty that the West represented the intrinsically authentic America" (DuBois, p. 51). Accordingly, in 1906 he bargained with William Simpson, Manager of the Santa Fe Railway, for free passage to Arizona and New Mexico in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. So began Leigh's fifty-year relationship with the West, developing a unique brand of Impressionist genre painting that moved even beyond the experimentation of his heroes Frederick Remington and Charles Marion Russell.
In 1910 Leigh's introduction to Will Richard, a French-Canadian taxidermist living in Cody, Wyoming, profoundly shaped the content and methods of his new western art. For three consecutive summers, Leigh accompanied Richard on hunting expeditions to Yellowstone, the Rockies, and the Dakotas, where he first experienced Plains Indian culture. Transfixed by "tipi life," Leigh photographed and made voluminous oil sketches of Crows and Sioux in their native dress, returning to these images throughout his career as the basis for such monumental narrative paintings as Custer's Last Fight (1939, Woolaroc Museum) and The Leader's Downfall (1946, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center). During these journeys, he also collected Indian artifacts -- clothing, jewelry, saddles, pottery, baskets, blankets, and weapons -- and transported them back to his New York studio as references for his finished paintings. These practices to ensure accuracy and authenticity in his work continued into the teens, as Leigh began documenting the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes of the Southwest.
Through his friendship with Richard, Leigh also became a master renderer of animals. Leigh encountered his first large game on these hunting trips, memorializing them in dramatic works like A Close Call (1912, private collection), where a grizzly bear towers over a fallen hunter and fends off a pack of snarling dogs. Richard exposed Leigh to the art of taxidermy, and Leigh commonly mailed him photographs of his animal paintings in progress for a critique. Leigh's undeniable forte was horse anatomy, and horses not only commonly feature, but star in his paintings. In Indian Rider, Leigh persuasively captures the intense physicality and psychology of the horse in flight -- its heaving, muscular torso and airborne hooves, as well as its adrenalin-charged wide eyes and flaring nostrils. Intentionally, the Indian blends into the horse: his foot aligns with the horse's leg, their bodies are similarly colored, and their black, feather-adorned hair reads as one passage. Indeed, Indian Rider is the essence of what Leigh saw as the powerful symbiotic connection between Native Americans and animals.
For Leigh, this relationship between man and nature extended beyond animals to the land itself, and ultimately what distinguished him among western genre painters were his exquisite Impressionist landscapes. Particularly after visiting the Arizona desert in 1912, Leigh adopted a vibrant palette of pinks, oranges, blues, and greens to render rock strata against bright skies. At the time, his colors both delighted and shocked critics, who variously wrote, "there are not many American painters who can so glorify in paint the radiance of key on which he sets his brave palette" (D. Cummins, William Robinson Leigh, Norman, Oklahoma, 1980, p. 103), or "yet he has sound reasons for 'all these queer, impossible hues'"(DuBois, p. 119). A skilled draftsman from his days as an illustrator, Leigh drew his compositions with charcoal and then painted directly over this medium with oil glazes to effect luminescence. He also juxtaposed areas of linear detail with broader, Impressionist brushwork. Indian Rider foregrounds these hallmark techniques. The precisely rendered, earth-toned Indian on horseback bursts forth from the whitewashed land, where dashes of pink, salmon, sage green, and purple crystallize into rocks, brush, and shadows. Indian Rider is beauty and drama, life and death in one. It is Leigh at his best.
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