William Robinson Leigh, born on a farm in West Virginia in 1866, knew struggle and adversity from his birth, which perhaps fed his early affinity for the plight of the American Indian whom he came to revere. After the Civil War, the once comfortable Leigh family fell on hard times, lost the farm, and had to take in boarders. Young William showed immense talent as an artist, and with the financial help of his aunt and uncle, he was able to attend the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. He excelled there, and in 1883, he enrolled at the Royal Academy in Munich, where he spent the next 12 years. From his Munich years, he emerged as an artist who was a superb draftsman with a strong sense of line, a vigorous brush technique, a high-keyed palette and canvases that were highly finished. Also in keeping with the Munich tradition, he chose genre as the primary subject of his painting.
Leigh settled in New York in 1896 and began his struggle to be an independent artist. After searching without success for a patron, he accepted a position as an illustrator for Scribner's magazine confessing, "At all costs I had hoped to avoid illustrating, yet it seems as if I were doomed to do it." (D.D. Cummings, William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist, Norman and Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1980, p. 82) He worked for Scribner's and also for Collier's for more than a decade, often traveling to create illustrations for various stories. Leigh found the work to be personally and artistically unsatisfying. However through his work in illustration, he was able to survive and maintain an identity in the artistic community.
In 1906, Albert Goring, a former fellow Munich student, invited Leigh to visit Laguna, New Mexico. Leigh desperately needed a new environment and fresh artistic stimulation, but could not afford the fare. At this time, the Santa Fe Railroad advertising division was sponsoring art expeditions to the west for their calendar series. Leigh appealed to the advertising manager, and so was able to get a railroad ticket to Laguna in trade for a painting that the railroad liked so much they ordered another five. In September of that year, Leigh arrived in Laguna, and ". . . thoroughly enchanted declared, 'I stood alone in a strange and thrilling scene. At last I was on the land where I was to prove whether I was fit -- worthy of the opportunity -- able to do it justice -- or just a dunderhead.' There in New Mexico, all of the pieces fell into place: the Munich training that so strongly emphasized genre subjects, his own long-standing attraction to nature, and the new idea that he had adopted from [Thomas] Moran: that of producing truly native art." (William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist, pp. 86-87)
Over the next several years, Leigh made many trips to the region and endeavored to make the west his home. Like his contemporaries painting in Taos, Leigh remained true to his Munich training, striving for accurate realism in his highly finished canvases depicting the American Indians of New Mexico. In the present work, he has bathed the pueblo courtyard in a soft yellow light, dramatically setting off the classical figure group of mother and child in a shadowed area that conveys the cool comfort provided by the architecture. The quiet meditative scene underscores the directness with which Leigh approached his subjects. Leigh wrote extensively about art, and to him all human expression was governed by adherence to truth, beauty, and integrity. Works "devoid of simple, honest, professional mastery and worthiness of purpose" were without merit. (William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist, p. 131) Indian Madonna is a superb example of Leigh's skillful draftsmanship, vivid palette and idealistic realism.