Born near Falling Waters, West Virginia on a plantation a year after the Civil War, and raised in Baltimore, William Leigh became one of the foremost painters of the American West with a career of seventy-five years. Some people referred to him as the "Sagebrush Rembrandt."
He was the son of impoverished Southern aristocrats and took his first art training at age 14 from Hugh Newell at the Maryland Institute, where he was regarded as one of the best students in his class. From 1883 to 1895, he studied in Europe, mainly at the Royal Academy in Munich with Ludwig Loefftz. From 1891 to 1896, he painted six cycloramas or "murals in the round", a giant German panorama. In 1896, he began working as a magazine illustrator in New York City for Scribner's and Collier's Weekly Magazine. He also painted portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes. However, he was not a very successful artist in those years in New York.
His trips to the Southwest began in 1906, when he made an agreement with William Simpson, Santa Fe Railway advertising manager, to paint the Grand Canyon in exchange for free transportation West. In 1907, he completed his Grand Canyon painting, which led to many more commissions and an extensive painting trip through Arizona and New Mexico. These travels inspired him to paint western subjects for the next 50 years, but it was not until the 1940s that he received much recognition. He painted in the Southwest nearly every summer between 1912 and 1926 and focused on the Hopi and Navajo Indians.
In 1910, he traveled to Wyoming, where he painted in Yellowstone Park and did sketches, many which he later converted into large canvases such as Lower Falls of the Yellowstone (1915) and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1911).
His style was realistic, and his palette invariably had the Southwestern hues of soft pinks, reds, yellows and purples. In fact, his critics who knew little of the Southwest accused him of fabricating the colors.
As an older man he was described as a big, powerful man with gray hair and a white handlebar mustache and a deep base voice. He was highly opinionated and absolutely hated modern, abstract art. During the latter part of his career, he painted a series of American historical murals, as well as paintings based on his travels to Africa, funded by the Eastman Kodak Company and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For many years, his work was handled exclusively in New York at the Grand Central Art Galleries at the Biltmore Hotel.
Many of his works are at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In March, 1999, the Historical Center of Cody, Wyoming held an exhibition of his field sketches and finished works depicting his experiences in the early part of the century, between 1910 and 1921. These years, many of which he spent painting in the Carter Mountain vicinity, were considered crucial to his artistic development because he was exposed to Western landscape. His companion during these travels was local taxidermist Will Richard, who stirred his interest in wildlife.