Some of you may be reading about the recent sale of a painting made in 1932, by the American artist William Robinson Leigh, entitled 'Home Sweet Home'. In fact, the work, which sold for $1.195 million on the 5th November, beat the artist's previous sale record and thrust his name further up the list of auction highlights for 2011. It also continues the growing trend for pre-war American landscape painters that reflects an all too tardy desire to understand and interrogate the turbulent history of the USA.

In 'Home Sweet Home', three people are depicted seated around a camp fire, a vast and flat blue-tinged horizon cutting through the image about two-thirds of the way up the canvas. The fire, burning bright and concentrated at the centre of the scene, is placed exactly between the hand of the native American on the left and the booted foot of the European cowboy on the right, signalling the stormy and violent relationship between the two peoples represented by these generalised archetypes. The third man, a sinisterly painted fool-like harmonica player, seems to interrupt the quiet reverie of this grouping and, like a buzzing mosquito, disturb the vast and over-arching peace of the American mid-west depicted beyond.

The rich and textured detail littering the foreground of the picture appears at first glance somewhat extraneous to the figuritive elements of the work. However, this too plays upon the relationships at stake in the image. A marked and dirty trunk, filled with modern tinned foods, lies open near a beautiful native American woven blanket. Here, the dichotomy between vernacular craft versus mass-production, or native versus settler, is depicted with clarity and poignancy. A wooden horse cradle lies across the blanket, its crossed-wood structure symbolic of a simple gravestone. I don't think, given how dire was the reality for the native populations at the time of the work's completion, that we're left in any doubt as to who or what is being commemmorated. A modern steel pistol, holstered in plain view on the belt of the Indian man, puts a final stamp on the moral direction of the painting; For Leigh, it was the arrival of the nineteenth-century frontiersmen that introduced violence and death into the lives of the native peoples, not the other way round.

Far from being what the auction house's Vice President describes as a 'compelling story of camaraderie on the plains', the work is filled with a taught and quivering tension that cuts to the underlying turbulence of the American past. Though regressive in its themes and 'too little too late', Leigh's image alludes to the continual unrest of the frontier's westward movement, and the near extinction of North America's native populations as a result of the European invasion.




Matthew Reeves


November 19, 2011 — Peter Alexander