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Art, Portrait, Oil on Canvas, Cowboy, W.R. Leigh, Antique Early 20th Century, 1192

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This untitled oil-on-canvas painting is stunning and covetable on its own artistic and aesthetic merit, but the antique portrait truly draws its cultural significance and substantial worth from its provenance and origin story. The artist, William Robinson Leigh, is renowned in the world of Western art – several of his pieces are present in the Whitney Western Art Museum, part of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming – and this particular painting has extra prominence because it was a personal gift was inscribed and dedicated to his friend and famed artistic contemporary, Henry Sharp, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists, of which he is considered the “Spiritual Father”. It’s no secret that artists are commonly most appreciated posthumously (Vincent Van Gogh, anyone?) and when you find one in this condition at 100 years old*, well, then you’ve got something really special. It’s kind of like owning a piece of American history.

*Both the painting and frame have been professionally restored by a certified restorationist.

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 every summer 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.

  • artist: William Robinson Leigh
  • affiliation: American
  • hallmarks: "to my friend Henry Sharp W. R. Leigh" signed lower left
  • back of canvas: 61 Poplar Street, Brooklyn, NY
  • materials: oil on canvas, frame
  • sight dimensions: 16 1/4" x 24 1/4"
  • frame dimensions: 19 1/2" x 27 1/2"
  • painting has been professionally restored
  • the frame has been professionally restored
  • museum or collection ready
  • style: ART-1192
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