- United States
William Leigh, United States
27.38 in. x 21.38 in.
Denver Art Museum Collection: William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, 2001.445
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
Even before he had seen the West, artist William R. Leigh [LEE] believed it was the only real America. Born in West Virginia, he did not travel to the western United States until he was 40 years old. With his upper-class family on the verge of bankruptcy, Leigh struggled to find funding to study art and managed to get training at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore and the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. He returned to the U.S. in 1896 and set up a studio in New York, where he worked as an illustrator for two American magazines—Scribner’s and Collier’s.
About 10 years later, Leigh finally made his way west. To fund his trip he made an agreement with the advertising manager of the Santa Fe Railroad to paint the land and the people of the West, specifically the Laguna Pueblo near the four corners region, in exchange for a ride. Camping alone in the Grand Canyon, Leigh had an epiphany about the subject matter he needed to pursue. Over the next 20 years, he made dozens of trips west, bringing hundreds of drawings and painted studies back to his New York studio, where he used them in dramatic compositions. Leigh painted Greased Lightning when he was 80 years old.
What Inspired It
“I find in the West the truly typical and distinctively American motifs, a grandeur in Natural surroundings, a dramatic simplicity in life which can be found nowhere else. In that life, in those surroundings…, marvelously varied and abundant—the horse plays a major role,” wrote Leigh in his 1933 book The Western Pony.
Growing up on a plantation sparked Leigh’s interest in animals, horses in particular, and his studies in Germany allowed him to master realist techniques. This, paired with the vivid colors of the American West and his flair for the dramatic, allowed him to create a unique style. Leigh was an advocate for distinctly American art and opposed the abstract style of modernism.
In this painting, the shapes of the horse and rider fit around each other almost like puzzle pieces and things fling out from the churning center in all directions: flying legs, stirrups, reins and, of course, the suspended, upside-down cowboy, hat, and gun. Leigh once described an action filled scene such as this one, in which a rider is bucked from his horse: “A real zestful bucker bawls while bucking. His bawl is a strident scream expressive of utter exasperation—fury of the most savage and reckless sort. The bucker will also bite or kick his rider [who], when he sees he will not be able to stay on his horse, tries to fall as deliberately as may be.”
The horse is the central figure in this painting, portrayed as willful and independent. Notice that its face is every bit as expressive as that of the rider.
Leigh was an excellent draftsman, thanks to his rigorous academic training. He could seemingly draw anything, including this awkward pose that most artists probably wouldn’t attempt (or want to).
Leigh was drawn to the bright and intense colors he found in the West, though his colors became increasingly theatrical. Don’t miss the pink-tinged mountains in the background (in spite of bright sunlight in the foreground) and the bright green eye of the horse.
The shadows on the ground are also bright in color. It is interesting to compare how they match up to the horse and rider above them.
The mountains in the background and the brush and rocks in the foreground were probably taken from site studies Leigh made out west.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- William Leigh grew up on a plantation in West Virginia, studied art in Germany, and ended up living in and painting scenes of the West. Discuss with students how, even though you are born in one area of the world, you don’t have to be limited to it. If the students could go anywhere in the world or do anything they wanted, where would they travel and what would they do? Have the students write a letter to themselves encouraging them to reach for their dreams. Mail it to the students at the end of the school year as a reminder of their goals.