Originally published in Points West in Fall 1995.
By Sarah Laughlin,
Former Curatorial Assistant, Whitney Western Art Museum and Plains Indian Museum.
Dr. Edward Weyer, former editor of the American Museum of Natural History’s Natural History magazine, described Buffalo Drive, painted circa 1947 by W.R. Leigh, as “one of the very remarkable animal paintings of all time.” During the summer of 1910, Leigh traveled to Cody, Wyoming on a hunting expedition. On this trip, he first encountered the Northern Plains Indians that inspired paintings such as this. In the library of Leigh’s childhood home there was a buffalo rug on which he would lie while his father read accounts of the Indian Wars in the West.
An excellent draftsman and illustrator, William Robinson Leigh studied his craft in Munich at a time when Paris was turning towards impressionism. Though Leigh publicly decried this movement, his use of color leans towards the impressionistic.
Buffalo Drive was considered a snapshot of history when it was first shown at the Grand Central Art Galleries in 1948. The work was praised by western enthusiasts and anthropologists for its authenticity. In retrospect this praise was exaggerated, though some aspects of the painting are correct.
The action portrayed in the painting is compressed but basically accurate. A buffalo jump is an abrupt cliff edge or vertical river bluff over which a small buffalo herd could be driven. The run in the painting has natural barriers on either side, channeling the bison toward the jump. There is a slight rise before the cliff, which tricked the animals into believing that they were running up a hill, not off the edge of a cliff. The hunters waving pieces of hide on the sides of the run helped steer the buffalo toward the cliff. Buffalo at the back of the herd race forward in a frenzy, forcing those in front over the edge. Below, a few men wait to kill any bison that did not die in the fall. Women are at work there, removing hides and butchering the animals.
There are, however, a few notable inaccuracies in the painting. The hunter on the horse is riding on a woman’s pack saddle. Men seldom used saddles, employing only a jaw rope for control. This allowed for quick mounts and dismounts, important in a hunt or battle. Saddles which men used consisted of a pad only, a hide pillow stuffed with grass.
The Native Americans depicted in Buffalo Drive appear savage and as massive as the bison. In Leigh’s art, Indians were one with nature; the hunters were simply more resourceful animals than the bison. However, he did see the Native American culture as exemplifying unspoiled freedom, removed from the confines of Western civilization.
As World War II ended, many people began to share these nostalgic beliefs. Consequently Leigh’s paintings, and Western art in general, grew in popularity. Leigh believed that American artists should preserve this country’s unique contribution to the world, the American West.
Increasingly Leigh was referred to as the last of a great triumvirate-Remington, Russell and Leigh. He became known as the “Sagebrush Rembrandt,” although the comparison lacks relevance. Leigh disliked Rembrandt’s subdued use of color. When he traveled to the Southwest and saw the brilliance of the colors there, Leigh began to use the palette that brings to life paintings such as Buffalo Drive.