With a wild, tenacious manner, the Wild West has blazed its way into the minds of many. Scenes of vast prairies, wild mustangs, and of course, dashing cowboys, suddenly invade the mind when thinking of the American Frontier. It is because of artists that these images exist. It is because paint was thrust upon a canvas and pencils were led across paper. It is because water was mixed with pigment and threads were brought together. From paintings, drawings, water colors, and even textiles, the American Frontier has a face, and it is striking.
At a time when vehicular transportation was foreign, horses reined the lands, and cowboys reined the horses. Inspired by the beautiful conjunction of man and animal, painter, William Robinson Leigh, depicted scenes of the western life. In 1914, he created a series of oil paintings on canvas featuring cowboys riding atop galloping horses. The Roping, displayed in the University of Texas at Austin’s museum, the Blanton Museum of Art, is one of these fine paintings.
At first glance, one is overwhelmed with a sense of dynamism as a stampeding horse is seen galloping towards the viewer. Atop this muscular creature rests a posed cowboy, propelling his lasso above his head, captured in a moment just before he ropes his catch. Through the dust caught up behind the racing animal, another rider can be seen dashing through the undefined background, blurred and minimally detailed, compared to the primary character. Riding in a different direction, this secondary rider enables the viewer a different perspective of the cowboy and horse, hard at work. Clothed in classic cowboy garb, each rider displays a long-sleeved shirt with a bandana tied around his neck and a classic cowboy hat upon his head. These workers clearly illustrate a common scene of the Wild West. Complementing the scene and contrasting with the bright, vibrant colors of the foreground, lay light, pastel rocks and foliage common to the western era scattered all about the scene. Red clay and dirt make up the soil that is kicked up around the horse’s white stockings while gnarled twigs and miniscule shrubs add interest to the barren ground. From the pastel colors swirling in the sky, a sense of morning dawn is created, emphasizing that the cowboy’s work is only just beginning.
From this skillfully rendered oil painting, one is enveloped by the American Frontier. Influenced by the quick strokes of oil upon the canvas, one’s sense of speed and thrill is heightened as the realism of the painting intensifies the western experience. The heat of the sun and the dust within the wind is conveyed while the intense energy and action of the straining horse is clearly represented. Within the equestrian’s reflective eyes, the viewer witnesses the tiring, toiling work he bears, contrasting with the simple grace produced from his rider’s comfortable composure. Bringing the picture together and completing the overall feeling, ropes and reigns are thrown about creating dynamic movement, incredible elegance, and an abundant sense of action.
In an era of expansion, adventure, and revolution, inspiration was easily found and depictions of the nation’s changing experiences were sought after. Many artists were hired to record history while others, such as Leigh, simply wished to convey the glorious changes he witnessed. “I find in the West the truly typical and distinctively American motifs, a grandeur in natural surroundings, a dramatic simplicity in life which can be found nowhere else,” he noted in The Western Pony, a book that he wrote and illustrated in 1933. (“Blanton Museum of Art” Web. 1 Oct 2010.) Through each intentional color, action, and movement of The Roping, “dramatic simplicity” is clearly represented. Demonstrating the cowboy at work with his stead, Leigh represented the intense, yet relaxed nature brought about within the American Frontier and allowed the viewer to become a part of the Wild West.
With its dynamic and thrilling composition complemented with classic western images, The Roping successfully captures the viewer’s attention, thrusts him or her within the American Frontier, and envelopes him with a sense of dramatic simplicity. Just as Leigh intended, the cowboy’s toiling work is represented through his graceful pose as he flawlessly whips a lasso above his head while riding upon his vital stead. A union between man and animal is also expertly demonstrated, emphasizing the importance of the horse within the Wild West and the major role the creature played in a cowboy’s life. Any man of the West taking in this piece would be filled with honor and pride just as any viewer would agree that it proficiently captures a moment lost in time.
Because horses and cowboys no longer come together as they once did and the lands of the West are no longer uncharted as they once were, we tend to visualize and dream about the past. By viewing William Robinson Leigh’s oil painting, The Roping, one can experience the fantasy of the idealized and stylistic scenes presented. Capturing the sight of a cowboy at work, the piece delivers a thrilling sense of action and dynamism that might just be over-exaggerated and emphasized to satisfy our ideas. Through idealization, the viewer is enabled to step into the Wild West and hear the heavy panting of the horse, feel the oppressive heat of the sun, smell the dusty dirt within the air, and live and experience the sense of dramatic simplicity that was the American Frontier.