W.R. Leigh decided on a career in art at a young age; he enrolled in classes at the Maryland Institute of Baltimore in 1880 when he was only 14. He spent three years at the Maryland Institute before moving to Munich where he studied at the Royal Academy for over a decade. While at the Academy, he won the annual medal for painting six consecutive times.
Returning to the United States, Leigh settled in New York City where he became a well-established illustrator. In 1906 an opportunity to expand the scope of his work came about when the Santa Fe Railroad offered him free passage to the West in exchange for a painting of the Grand Canyon. This prompted Leigh to set off through New Mexico and Arizona on a trip that yielded not just the Grand Canyon commission, but five more canvases that were purchased by the railroad.
Leigh's focus was on the changing light of the Southwest, the pinks and purples created by the sun sets over the mountain ranges. Referred to as "The Sagebrush Rembrandt," Leigh traveled to the Southwest many more times to paint the landscape and people. His primary area of interest was the Hopi and Navajo Indians, who he painted every summer from 1912 to 1926.