Born in Plainfield, New Hampshire, Kathryn Leighton became a celebrated Indian portrait and landscape painter, especially big-screen scenes of glaciers, which resulted from trips to Glacier National Park beginning 1923. 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, then the youngest lawyer ever in New Hampshire to have passed the bar exam. Throughout their marriage, he was totally supportive of his wife’s art talent, and of the relationship it was written that it “proved that stereotypical gender roles do not always deter a successful partnership. Edward Leighton’s financial support, the summers away from his law practice, and his companionship on vacations, enabled Kathryn to benefit as an artist from their bond and most likely contributed to her 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 he became a prominent lawyer, and she studied at the Stickney School of Art in Pasadena and with Jean Mannheim, and established a studio on West 46th Street. From there she painted nearly 700 Indian portraits, and often had the actual subjects in her studio doing war dances, whooping and playing drums. She was also respected for her dedication to homemaking, to their adopted son, Everett, and to civic projects.
For several years, she was vice-president of the California Art Club. Her brother, Frederic Thomas Woodman, was in Los Angeles, where from 1916 to 1919, he served as mayor, and his wide-ranging contacts helped establish the Leightons in the community. In fact, “Woodman’s office resembled an art gallery, resplendent with Kathryn’s paintings.”
Also doing floral still life and landscapes, she repeatedly depicted her favorite subject, which was the desert in bloom. Having been told about Glacier National Park by Charles Russell, she spent much time in that region where she created panoramic landscapes. The trip was also fortuitous because it cemented the Leighton’s friendship with artist Charles Russell and his wife as guests at the Russell’s summer home at Bull Head Lodge on Lake McDonald. The invitation had resulted from Kathryn meeting Russell in Los Angeles at a party hosted by painter Jack Wilkinson Smith at Smith’s studio in Los Angeles.
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, 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.