William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955) The War Chief 24 1/2 x 18 1/4in (Painted in 1913.)

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Lot 13
William Robinson Leigh
The War Chief 24 1/2 x 18 1/4in

Sold for US$ 125,000 inc. premium
William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955)
The War Chief
signed, dated and inscribed 'W.R. Leigh / N.Y. 1913.' (lower right)
oil on canvas laid down on board
24 1/2 x 18 1/4in
Painted in 1913.


  • Provenance
    Sale, Texas Art Gallery, Dallas, Texas, June 6, 1983, lot 48.
    Acquired by the late owner from the above.

    S.H. McGarry, Honoring The Western Tradition: The L.D. "Brink" Brinkman Collection, Kerrville, Texas, 2003, p. 21, illustrated.

    William Robinson Leigh was a contemporary of Charles Marion Russell and Frederic Remington and his name is often associated with them, but he did not find fame until quite late in his long career. Perhaps even more improbable was that he didn't come face-to-face with his most famous subject, the West, until he was 40 years old. Leigh was born in Berkeley County, West Virginia in 1866 just a year after the end of the Civil War. While his family was aristocratic in prior years, post-war they were in dramatic decline. He spent much of his life short on the funds he needed to live the life he wanted to lead, including his education. Art took hold of him early. He was so focused on art that, by some accounts, he was too stubborn to even learn how to read properly. At age 14, Leigh enrolled in classes at the Maryland Institute, Baltimore, and spent three years there forming his artistic foundation. From Maryland, Leigh traveled to Munich, where he studied at the Royal Academy for over a decade. While at the Academy, he won the annual medal for painting six times in a row. In 1895, Leigh moved to New York. While possessed of a prodigious talent, even financial stability eluded him. Out of duress, rather than choice, Leigh took up illustration. His fastidious eye for detail and masterful technique were a natural fit and he did a great deal of work for both Scribner's and Collier's magazines.

    In 1906, Leigh accepted an invitation from fellow artist Albert Groll, a Munich classmate, to visit Laguna, New Mexico. To fund his trip, he arranged a trade with the Santa Fe Railroad in the form of paintings of the Grand Canyon for their advertising. The fruitful trip yielded additional paintings which they purchased as well and more importantly it sparked numerous trips throughout the West. Leigh painted the Southwest in particular nearly every summer between 1912 and 1926.

    Leigh was known colloquially as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt" due to his combination of rigorous technical skill, Western subject matter and at times daring coloration. The composition is meticulously planned. The Chief is twisted in the saddle, his eyes tracing the path his weary horse is taking. With his squinty glare he seems to be almost daring someone to follow him on a route no one would take outside of necessity. Leigh's knowledge of anatomy allows him to exaggerate the horse's stride for narrative effect, just like the facial expression of the Chief. The Chief's whole body is underpainted in dark brown with gray and blue tones superimposed to sculpt the figure out of the light. It is with masterful economy that he captures the chief's oblique stomach with one irregular blue tinted highlight above the strong shadow of the gun. Similarly, the viewer feels the tension in the moment through the corded musculature of the Chief's forearm, defined by a few blue tinged highlights over the underpainting, as he tightly grips the gun. The same technique is applied to the horse. Unlike the War Chief and his steed, the background and the sky are treated very differently. Here Leigh utilizes yellows and creamy whites broadly around the carefully delineated figures—even the purple-hued shadow on the side of the ravine has a quick, loose feel. A pointillist blue sky peaks around the bend in the rocks. The War Chief, by Leigh's skill with brush and color, tells a story with a glance.
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