Born on a farm in West Virginia in 1866, William Robinson Leigh's artistic talents were quickly recognized and embraced by his family. After years of training, first at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore and then at the Royal Academy in Munich, Leigh settled in New York in 1896 and began his career as an artist where he took work as an illustration for Scribner’s and Collier’s Weekly to support himself.
In 1906, at the age of 40, Leigh realized his lifelong dream of visiting the American West. Unable to afford a train ticket, he brokered a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad, exchanging a painting of the Grand Canyon, which they used to promote tourism, for transportation to Laguna, New Mexico. Leigh wrote, "In America there was a vast field of untouched material - pictorial opportunities unsurpassed and brand new - as wonderful as any the world has even seen!" (Arizona Highway, February 1948, p. 16). This first trip was an inspiring sojourn that included visits to the villages of the Acoma and Zuni Indians, meeting fellow artist Joseph H. Sharp in Taos, and ultimately traveling to the Grand Canyon. Finally, running low on funds, he was forced to return to New York where he wrote, "My entire horizon had now been revamped. My field was the frontier West. From now on I knew I must return as often to that field as possible" (June Dubios, W.R. Leigh: The Definitive Illustrated Biography, Kansas City, Missouri, 1977, p. 56).
Over the course of his career, Leigh traveled west more than twenty-five times, constantly sketching and documenting the landscape and culture of the region. Leigh's early experience as an illustrator honed his storytelling skills and, like many of his contemporaries interested in western subject matter, he was greatly influenced by Frederic Remington, Charles Schreyvogel and Charles Marion Russell. Painted in 1954, Hell Bent is a dramatic portrayal of an agitated horse throwing a cowboy from his back. Leigh captures the rider suspended in midair, infusing the scene with a sense of dynamism.
While critics and fellow artists were slow to accept Leigh, he continued to capture the unique charm and unrivaled allure of the West. Prior to his death in 1955, Leigh ultimately saw appreciation for his painting and experienced the acclaim he desired. D.D. Cummins wrote, "Throughout the fifties the news media were lavish in their praise of Leigh, referring to him as 'nationally famous,' 'world famous,' 'painter laureate of the old west,' 'Rembrandt of the West,' and 'The most famous of all Western illustrators, with the possible exception of Frederick [sic] Remington... Newspapers were nearly unanimous in identifying him as a member of the famous western art trio [with Remington and Russell]" (William Robinson Leigh: Western Artist, Norman, Oklahoma, 1980, pp. 164-65).