Kathryn Woodman Leighton
1875 – 1952
About Kathryn Woodman Leighton
Born in Plainfield, New Hampshire, Kathryn Leighton became a celebrated Native American portrait and landscape painter. An exhibition reviewer for the Los Angeles Evening Herald, February 27, 1926 wrote: “The first to bring to galleries here the strange, wild charm of Glacier National park for an entire exhibit, Leighton has a masculine sweep and strength to her brush, and few men painters can outdo the virility of her sunbathed peaks and wind-winnowed snowfields.”
She attended Kimball Union Academy near Plainfield and graduated in 1900 from the Massachusetts Normal Art School. That same year, she married attorney Edward Leighton, whose support and companionship aided in Kathryn’s success as one of the foremost painters of Native Americans at a time when the subject was reserved for males.”
In 1910, she and her husband moved to Los Angeles where she studied at the Stickney School of Art in Pasadena and with Jean Mannheim, and established a studio on West 46th Street.
In 1918, she had begun painting American Indian portraits, many of them signed by the sitter, and this endeavor brought her international recognition. In 1926 in Montana, Charles Russell introduced her to the Blackfeet Indians and to officials of the Northern Pacific Railway. These contacts paved the way for success with a project of doing portraits of Blackfeet elders for The Great Northern Railway, whose personnel wanted them for an exhibition with lecture series about the disintegration of Indian cultural traditions. The goal of railroad officials was to preserve a record of a vanishing way of life.
To initiate the portrait project with Leighton, officials brought her and her family to Glacier National Park for three months as their guests. Then railroad personnel brought in the chiefs of the Blackfeet tribes, and paid them to serve as her models. At the end of that summer, the project seemed such a success that the railroad reportedly bought 20 of the portraits for high prices, and then sent the paintings on a cross-country tour with a lecturer explaining the Blackfeet culture. Needless to say, this project was a ‘shot in the arm’ for Leighton’s professional career, and she became known as the expert portraitist of Native Americans. The Blackfeet adopted her into their tribe and gave her the name “Anna -Tar-Kee”, which in English translated to ‘beautiful woman in spirit”.
Of this work, she said: “I am trying to put on canvas the nobility of the old Indian as I see him, the beauty of the colour, the dignity of tradition and the fundamental beliefs of our first American people. . . .I have painted all of the Blackfeet Indians in the colours of the sacred paints they use on their faces; you will notice their hands are usually a different colour.”
Following this project for the Northern Pacific Railroad, Leighton made annual painting trips to Indian tribes including Blackfeet, Hopi, Iroquois, Sioux and Cherokee, Navajo, Pawnee and Osage, and major exhibitions were held around the country. She visited many of her subjects in their homes such as hogans, tepees and wigwams. Many portraits using tribal clothing and cultural items were painted in her Los Angeles studio. These portraits, totaling about 700, remain a valuable, lasting historical record of their customs, clothing and lore.
In 1929, she did a tour of Europe and the Eastern United States with her paintings, and gained widespread recognition for her artistic skill and the educational aspects of her work. In addition to portrait painting, Kathryn Leighton did seascape and landscape paintings with a specialty being wildflowers. Titles include Wild Flowers of Glacier National Park, Mount Rainier and Spring in Coachella Valley.