When celebrated artist Ray Ellis passed away last year at the age of 92, he left behind a legacy of artistic achievement that spanned nearly eight decades. Beloved for his iconic images of Martha’s Vineyard and the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, Ellis combined his grounding in art history with his personal sensitivity to landscape and marine scenes. Telfair Museums celebrates the life and career of this accomplished artist through this presentation of the four fine examples of his work found in the museum’s permanent collection.
Ellis described his life as a fascinating and unexpected journey filled with joy and good fortune, largely defined by his passion for art. As a youth, Ellis frequented the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he was exposed to work that informed his later approach to painting. American artists Ogden Pleissner, Andrew Wyeth, Alfred Thompson Bricher, Frederic Waugh, Edward Hopper, John Singer Sargent, and Rockwell Kent all exercised some influence upon Ellis’s art, as did French artists Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. Winslow Homer, however, exerted the greatest and most enduring impact on Ellis’s style and subject matter.
After attending the Philadelphia Museum School of Art from 1939-41, Ellis began to exhibit widely in the 1940s. In 1947 he was honored with a solo exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In the ensuing decades, he was elected President of the New Jersey Watercolor Society and showed regularly at the National Academy and the Salmagundi Club. Major one-person exhibitions followed at the Telfair Museum of Art (1976 and 2004); the Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina; the Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia; as well as many well-known East Coast galleries.
In the 1980s, Ellis collaborated with Walter Cronkite to produce a beautiful series of books including South by Southeast , North by Northeast, and Westwind, featuring prose by Cronkite and paintings by Ellis. Other major publications include Ray Ellis’s Savannah and the Lowcountry; Martha’s Vineyard: An Affectionate Memoir; Coastal Images of America; and Ray Ellis in Retrospect: A Painter’s Journey.
With an energy that belied his age, Ellis continued to paint as he entered his 90s. Despite the success he garnered over the course of his career, he relentlessly challenged himself to outdistance his last best effort, and his resulting body of work makes a significant contribution to 20th-century American realism.