Originally published in Points West magazine
William R. Leigh in Cody Country
By Sarah E. Boehme, Former Curator, Whitney Western Art Museum
The landscape and western life around Cody, Wyoming, have inspired many works of art, but few are as fiercely dramatic as the William R. Leigh (1866–1955) painting of Grizzly at Bay, 1913–15, oil on canvas, William E. Weiss Purchase Fund (see above). At the edge of a forest among dead and decaying tree stumps, a ferocious grizzly bear stands over a fallen hunter whose rifle lies useless nearby. Equally ferocious hunting dogs bare their teeth, snarl and encircle the grizzly, holding him back from the hunter and keeping him in place. In the background, running up a ridge in the nick of time, appear two other hunters. The closest hunter can end the standoff and save his partner with a well-placed shot from his rifle.
This depiction of life and death struggle, of violence and hunterly skill, resulted from Leigh’s participation in a 1912 museum-sanctioned collecting expedition. He accompanied Cody guides Ned Frost, Fred Richard and Will Richard, who were leading Dr. J.D. Figgins in a search for a grizzly specimen for the Colorado natural history museum, now the Denver Museum of Natural History.
The hunting party ventured into the rugged countryside near the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park. According to published accounts from Ned Frost and J.D. Figgins, after several days of hunting, they tracked and cornered a grizzly. Leigh, the artist, saw this as an opportunity to obtain studies for a future painting. As the dogs held the bear at bay, Leigh excitedly yelled to Frost to make the bear stand. Using a Kodak camera and his sketching implements, the artist made studies as the bruin thrashed and roared.
Dr. Figgins described the actions of the other members of the party while Leigh sketched and took snapshots. In the Rocky Mountain News, April 7, 1917, he was quoted, “…we waited nearby, changing our position occasionally in order to maintain a vantage point in case the bear should make a break for liberty. It was in one of those maneuvers, 1 think, that the guide came too close to the fighting dogs and was knocked down. This gave Mr. Leigh the idea which he has incorporated in his picture as it was finished.” Thus in reality, the dogs held the bear at bay not to save a hunter, but rather to provide a source for art. In the end, Leigh produced his paintings, the guides took the bear meat, and Figgins had the head and hide for his habitat exhibit.
Leigh’s excursion into grizzly country was one of several treks in the Cody area which were crucial to his development as a painter of the American West. His Wyoming experience were highlighted in a special exhibition—William R. Leigh: Wyoming Field Sketches—in fall 1998 at the Buffalo Bill [Center of the West].
The exhibition included more than 30 sketches in oil paints, which Leigh made between 1910 and 1921 on trips to Cody and the surrounding area. Here he gained experience in the western landscape by painting outdoors. Born in West Virginia in 1866, Leigh studied art in Baltimore, Maryland, then in Munich, Germany. He settled in New York City in 1896 and established a steady career as an illustrator for magazines. In 1906 he accepted the invitation of a former classmate to visit New Mexico. There Leigh found new inspiration in the beauties of the southwestern landscape and compelling subjects in the life of the Indians. From his base in New York, he would return to the Southwest in the summers.
Then in 1910 he received another invitation. Will Richard, a taxidermist in Cody, Wyoming, wanted to have an artist accompany him on a hunting expedition. Contact was made with Leigh, and in July he joined Richard and George Merrill for four weeks camping and sketching m the Carter Mountain area. Leigh recorded in his diary references to Meeteetse Creek, Antelope Creek, Rawhide Creek, the Greybull River, Cow Creek, and the Palette Ranch. He forged a friendship with Will Richard and returned to sketch with him in 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1921.
By traveling with Will Richard, Leigh was able to go into uninhabited areas and gain a sense of wilderness. Richard, in turn, received artistic instruction from Leigh. In his field sketches Leigh showed a freer application of paint than in his tightly rendered finished paintings. The sketches feature scenes of Wyoming sagebrush-covered hills, dense forests, and familiar landmarks such as Heart Mountain, Carter Mountain, and the McCullough Peaks. Animal studies of horses and hunting dogs also resulted from the trips. In an unpublished autobiography, Leigh wrote about the dogs he sketched in Cody: “They had a special breed of dogs, bred specially for hunting bear—mixture of bloodhound, foxhound and greyhound.”
The exhibition of Wyoming field sketches comes from the extensive Leigh collection at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma and was curated by Gilcrease curator Anne Morand. The Gilcrease Museum acquired Leigh’s studio collection from the estate of the artist’s widow, Ethel Traphagen.
The exhibition was supplemented by works of art and interpretive material from the Center’s collections. From the Whitney collection, Leigh’s paintings of Grizzly at Bay, Panning Gold, Wyoming, The Three Tetons, and The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone presented finished works related to the studies in the Gilcrease collection.
Leigh’s painting of the Tetons will provide a comparison with The Tetons done by Will Richard, also from the Whitney collection, to show how the taxidermist-artist learned from Leigh. A Winchester calendar from the Cody Firearms collection presents an example of Leigh’s illustrational work. A depiction of western hunters with an elk, it is possibly based on the elk hunt Leigh experienced with Will Richard in 1911.
A self-portrait of William R. Leigh was loaned for the exhibition, courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, Wyoming, which displayed the exhibition previously.