Born in bucolic Little Compton, RI to a family that could trace their ancestry back to the Pilgrims, it was his marriage in 1875, to Sarah Drew Wilkinson that changed the course of his life. Her wealth and encouragement permitted Burleigh to pursue a career as an artist. Burleigh sought academic European training, studying with Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) at Academie Julian in Paris from 1876 to 1880. Thereafter he returned home to Rhode Island where he spent the rest of his life at the center of the Rhode Island art community. S.R. Burleigh’s presence was pervasive in the Providence art scene from 1880 until his death in 1931. There is not a newspaper article, artist diary, club minutes or general publication that does not have mention of Burleigh involved in some significant art activity.
Consistent with his academic art training under Laurens, Burleigh painted in the realist style. He\was accomplished in oil painting, but is best known for his crisp gouache watercolors. Mabel Ducasse, art critic for the Providence Journal, wrote of Burleigh’s art that "there is a quality in his work which suggests that of the masters of the Renaissance when they chose to employ line and wash. It is character — born of perfect certainty of touch and flowing freedom of line. It is seldom achieved by modern watercolorists, who most often mistake the function of their medium, which is that of drawing rather than painting."
Burleigh rose to national prominence after receiving the bronze medal at the St. Louis Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1904, and an open prize from the Buffalo Society of Artists in 1913. He exhibited regularly at the Boston Art Club, the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Newport Art Museum. Burleigh was the leading member of the art community in Rhode Island of his generation. Rhode Island. He was a founder of the Providence Art Club in 1880, and the first president of the Providence Watercolor Club. He had a long association with the Rhode Island School of Design serving on the board of directors (1887–1893), as well as a renowned teacher (1897–1906), and as a trustee (1919–1931). He received an honorary degree in the arts from Brown University in 1912.
Perhaps the most unrecognized aspect of his art career was his role importing the Arts and Crafts ideal of British extraordinaire William Morris. The Arts and Crafts movement blossomed in the United States at the turn of the century after originating with William Morris in England as a reaction to a depersonalized and mechanized urban society. Providence, a major industrial city post-Civil War was ripe for these sentiments, and artist S.R. Burleigh played a pivotal role inculcating these ideals in the local community. Burleigh advocated for the decorative arts and integration of fine arts and design when he returned to Rhode Island from European study in 1880. A man of versatile creativity, Burleigh designed the Fleur-de-Lys Studios, an iconic Arts and Craft landmark in Providence. Collaborating with famed architect Edmund Russell Willson, Burleigh and his coterie of artists in the Art Workers Guild constructed and decorated this monument to the decorative arts in 1885. The flamboyant Fleur-de-Lys studio stands on the slope of Providence's historic College Hill on Thomas Street. The medieval-inspired, half-timbered-and-stucco building with exuberant bas-relief panels executed by Burleigh was the first structure created expressly for artists' studios, a revolutionary concept in its day. Based on structures he had seen in Chester, England, it is recognized as an architectural landmark of the Arts and Crafts movement in America and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1992. Today it is owned by the Providence Art Club and retains its original purpose as artists’ studios.
Burleigh’s interest in decorative design also resulted in the formation of an Art Workers Guild of local Providence artists in 1886, his founding of the Providence Water Color Club and his associations with other Arts and Crafts Providence groups such as the Handicraft Club, local color woodcut artist Eliza Gardiner and the 1901 Providence Art Club Arts and Crafts Exhibition.
His works are held in many private and public collections, including the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design (which has over 90 works), and the museums at Brown University, the Rhode Island Historical Society and Little Compton Historical Society.