From a young age, William Robinson Leigh showed immense talent as an artist, attending the Maryland Institute in Baltimore before enrolling in 1883 at the Royal Academy in Munich, where he spent the next twelve years. Leigh emerged an accomplished draftsman with a strong sense of composition, vigorous brushwork and his renowned high keyed palette--all present in The Narrowing Circle. Even while studying in Europe, the young artist dreamt of the American West, painting his earliest known Western work, The Gambler (1892, Private Collection), while immersed in his studies. Leigh explained, “I have always felt that the West was the place for me. Even in Europe (as a student), I had this in my mind as my objective, and consistently worked and planned to the end that I might go there and paint.” (as quoted in P.H. Hassrick, 100 Years of Western Art from Pittsburgh Collections, exhibition catalogue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1982, p. 18)
Upon his return to the United States in 1896, Leigh settled in New York City and accepted a position as an illustrator for Scribner’s magazine and others, while also trying to establish himself as a professional artist. The opportunity for Leigh to explore the West first came in 1906, when he was invited to travel on assignment to Laguna, New Mexico. Unable to finance the expedition in its entirety, Leigh appealed to the manager at the Santa Fe Railroad advertising division and secured a train ticket in exchange for executing an image of the Grand Canyon for use in a calendar. In September of that year, Leigh arrived in Laguna and was awe struck by his surroundings, recalling, “I stood alone in a strange and thrilled 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…” (as quoted in D.D. Cummins, William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist, Norman, Oklahoma, 1980, pp. 86-87) Fortunately, Leigh’s training in Munich paid off and he set about to create truly Western art, grounded in his love of narrative subjects and his impression of the natural Western landscape.
In works like The Narrowing Circle, Leigh remained true to that Munich training, striving for a realistic and highly finished composition. The artist captures the drama, which was intricately linked to life in the Old West in the minds of the general public, with keen attention to not only detail and light but, perhaps most importantly, to design. The result prompted one period reviewer to observe upon its exhibition at the National Academy of Design: “William R. Leigh’s 'The Narrowing Circle' is an astonishingly well drawn and dramatic frontier battle scene.” (“The National Academy of Design: Winter Exhibition--1916-1917,” The Art World, vol. 1, no. 5, February 1917, p. 306)
Set at midday, The Narrowing Circle features Leigh’s characteristic palette of warm oranges, pinks and blues, as the action unravels on a dry, rugged terrain that is unmistakably Western. Distinct drama and narrative unravel within each of Leigh’s fore, middle and backgrounds, as the painter characteristically thrusts the scene upon his viewer. In the foreground, the sinewy bodies of the characters, one of which tumbles from his horse, seem to nearly fall out of the picture and into the lap of the viewer. At the same time, Leigh’s central, most prominent figure rises up, powerfully set in dark tones against a light background, demanding our attention. These dynamic elements, strung together with an S-shaped design, establish incredible tension that heightens the sense of impending danger. All the while, despite having placed the viewer squarely on the doorstep of the main action, the real narrative of the picture, alluded to in its title, takes place in the background. The circle of Indians defined across the front of the composition, and just faintly seen across the background, narrows on their target, seen within the absent space at middle right down the barrels of the active shooters in the foreground. The success of this complex design is apparent and would come to define many of Leigh's best works. Perhaps most notably, Leigh would return to the composition of The Narrowing Circle in his equally theatrical Custer’s Last Stand (1939, Woolaroc Museum, Bartlesville, Oklahoma).
The Narrowing Circle is exemplary of Leigh’s technical prowess, unique style and his ability to capture the drama of the Old West through his masterfully designed narrative. Leigh’s most successful early compositions, such as the present work, are grounded in the artist's own personal fascination with the West and that of a generation gripped by the popular myths pervasive in literature and illustration. Such works not only laid the groundwork for his entire career, but also for those myths to later be presented for public consumption on the big screen.