Artist Profile – Ellis Ruley

1882–1959, lived and worked in Norwich, Connecticut

The biography of Ellis Ruley swerves through surprise, tragedy and, ultimately, grace. Born of escaped slaves in Norwich, Connecticut, Ruley left school after the third grade and joined his father in backbreaking work as a mason’s tender. Ruley suffered an accident on the job in 1929 and using the $25,000 in compensation, a considerable fortune at the time, he purchased several acres of land in the all-white Laurel Hills neighborhood, bought a green Chevrolet coupe, and married for the second time (the partnership with his first wife, producing his only child, had dissolved in 1925). His second union, with Wilhemina “Tootsie” Fox, a German woman, made them Norwich’s first interracial couple. Ruley began life as a painter in 1939, developing an appetite for the practice after painting the window screens on his home. He filled his free time with artmaking, creating work after work in housepaint on cardboard. Ruley’s subjects included wild and fantastical animals (often drawn from National Geographic magazine), Biblical scenes, cowboys and Native Americans, architectural and landscape studies, and many portraits of groups of women, often bathing beauties, all rendered in perspectivally shallow, brightly colored, exquisitely designed (often inspired by the visual rhetoric of advertising), and carefully balanced compositions.

Ruley’s son-in-law died under mysterious circumstances in 1948, a death that the African-American community in Norwich presumed to be murder. Sustained, longstanding racial enmity, on account of Ruley’s wealth and his marriage to Fox, tormented the family. Ruley himself died in 1959 from a head wound sustained in the driveway to his house. Despite evidence of robbery and a trail of blood over 100 feet long, his death was also ruled accidental. His house burned down a few weeks later, and the vast majority of his life’s work was lost. Only 62 pieces are now known to exist, and it was not until 1993, with the publication of Glenn Robert Smith’s Discovering Ellis Ruley, that the artist’s considerable legacy was evaluated. After exhibiting his work only once in his lifetime, Ruley was the subject of a comprehensive traveling retrospective in 1996 and a full-length documentary film in 2002.

—William Pym

Artist’s Work