Ray Ellis began every painting as though it would be the best painting he ever did.
It was with this spirit and enthusiasm that Mr. Ellis approached his life and his more than 80-year career as a painter on the Vineyard and beyond. Mr. Ellis died on Friday at the age of 92 from complications due to a recent stroke. He was painting two weeks before his death.
“Some days I’ll paint from 9 to 4, or other days I’ll come up and plan something,” Mr. Ellis said in a 2008 interview with the Gazette. “Whether I’m painting or not, I’m painting in my mind.”
Mr. Ellis’s work appears in the permanent collection at the White House (and several White House holiday cards), 15 books, and museums and galleries across the country. He painted on all seven continents, but made his home in Edgartown with his wife Theodora (Teddie) Axtell for the past 20 years.
His classic maritime scenes, with large clouds and billowing sails, pastoral landscapes and neighborhood settings, captured moments that made you feel as though you were in on the secret blessings of Island life. Mr. Ellis was an unapologetic romantic.
“I’ve always felt that romanticism . . . has been looked down on,” he told the Gazette in an interview nine years ago. “I go to a museum and I see Homer. I think, ‘Look at the way he did that cloud.’ Sargent — I say, ‘God, the way he painted those hands.’ So unconsciously, I’m part of Homer, Sargent, Wyeth — but it all comes out Ray Ellis . . . I picture places as they should be, as they have appeared for decades and for centuries, instead of making them look clinical.”
Mr. Ellis was born in Philadelphia on April 24, 1921 and recalled frequent visits to the museum as a child.
“I remember when I was just a little boy standing in the museum, looking at paintings, and I’d get pulled back by the guard,” he said in a 2004 interview. “I’d say, ‘I can do that, I can do that.’”
He attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and later served for four years with the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. Aboard the USS Corpus Christie, he met friend and fellow Vineyarder Bill Sprague.
“Each of us had a talent and we both used it doing the Rough Log Book. Bill did all the writing and I did the illustrations and the layout of the book. We put it together, together. We had it printed in Australia. Each guy got two copies and it was something they could take home with them of their whole experience. They absolutely treasure it.”
The two later reconnected on the Island.
Coastlines were a constant theme in Mr. Ellis’s life. After moving from New Jersey to Hilton Head Island, S.C., and then to Savannah, Ga., Mr. Ellis visited the Vineyard in 1972 and became enthralled, moving here full time in 1991.
“I’d always loved the sea,” he said. “I loved being surrounded by it, so I came here. And I loved the light . . . so I stayed.”
“We have all heard about the light in such places as the Greek Islands, Venice, Portugal and Taos. I have painted in all these locations and I would rate the light on the Vineyard with the best of them,” he said in Martha’s Vineyard: An Affectionate Memoir, the book he wrote with Ralph Graves.
Mr. Ellis was particularly fond of Vineyard mornings, taking walks, driving into town for breakfast, painting and reading during that time until he found an early morning tennis mate in longtime television news anchor Walter Cronkite. The doubles partners and great friends went on to work on three books together in the 1980s exploring the country’s coastlines.
In the 1990s, Mr. Ellis became heavily involved in Island causes, donating countless works for sale and auction. He became a central figure for the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust and his paintings raised more than $1 million toward preserving Island historic properties. Chris Scott, director of the preservation trust, called Mr. Ellis “the dean of Vineyard artists.”
“The beauty he captured in his artwork, the brightest and most atmospheric aspects of Martha’s Vineyard, was brilliant,” he said. “It was a treat to participate in his life.”
At the preservation trust’s annual Taste of the Vineyard fundraiser, Mr. Ellis would auction off one of his large oil paintings and sketches. To coax bids he’d threaten to take off his shirt, but “it was all part of the shtick,” Mr. Scott said.
Mr. Scott would sometimes spend New Year’s and Christmas with Mr. Ellis and his wife, and one very special birthday — Mr. Scott’s 50th birthday party at the Reading Room in Edgartown. A large box covered in gift wrapping lay in the middle of the room.
“He gave me the biggest birthday surprise of my life,” Mr. Scott recalled. “I had no idea what it could possibly be. Then the box collapsed and out pops Ray Ellis in [his wife] Teddie’s bathing suit with red lipstick. He planted a big smooch on my head.”
“He was the most playful, funny, entertaining guy I’ve ever known,” Mr. Scott said, laughing. “You couldn’t help but love him. It’s going to be very tough going forward.”
For 22 years, Thursdays meant lunch with the guys, including Mr. Scott. Lunch included poker, life updates and always a test run of a new joke by Mr. Ellis.
“Ray would preview a new joke to see if we’d like it or be horrified by it,” Mr. Scott said. “If we were significantly horrified, he would use it.”
“It wasn’t the jokes themselves that were so funny, but his delivery,” he continued. “I understand that he had a choice to make in his young life to be an entertainer or an artist. He could have gone either way. He was a true raconteur, always the life of the party.”
Mr. Ellis donated countless numbers of works to charities across the Island, something Mr. Scott said would be felt for years to come. Mr. Scott also worked with Mr. Ellis at the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, where they established a scholarship fund. Over the years, sales of Mr. Ellis’s paintings contributed $500,000 toward the fund.
“We were trying to develop it to a level where it can generate enough cash to sustain a significant annual scholarship,” Mr. Scott said. “We could not have done that without Ray.”
In 2006 Mr. Ellis mounted a three-day rare retrospective show at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown. More than 25 private owners of classic Ellis paintings were contacted for the 40-piece show of the “old master of a modern era.”
“The last two years, everything happened that I dreamed could happen, and never expected would,” Mr. Ellis said in a 2006 interview advancing the show.
Chris Morse, owner of the North Water, Field and Granary galleries, represented Mr. Ellis since 2008 and said his final works stood out.
“After he had a little medical setback three years ago, he re-entered the studio with a sense of urgency and an enthusiastic approach to his art,” Mr. Morse said.
Mr. Ellis often would work a sketch into a watercolor, Mr. Morse said, and then later turn it into a major oil work.
“His style is pretty unique,” he said. “I always thought he handled moonlight paintings better than any. He was a rare artist in the sense that he was equally adept at painting watercolor and oil. He had the ability to paint with conservative strokes; like Winslow Homer, he could create the effect of a mood and drama of a landscape with a very distilled efficiency of stroke. That doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a mastered technique he crafted over 75 years of painting.”
“He was a kind, big hearted, wonderful, wonderful man,” Mr. Morse added. “Ray Ellis is the type of person that makes Martha’s Vineyard a good place. It’s more than a loss, it’s a void.”