Born in Virginia City, Montana, Fremont Ellis earned a reputation as a New Mexico painter of site-specific landscapes that conveyed his intense feelings for the rich coloration of the Southwest. He was much influenced by American Impressionism and was one of the few newcomer artists of Santa Fe who had been born in the West.
Ellis first arrived in Santa Fe in 1919, drawn to the city by its reputation as a stimulating and pleasant place to work. He came from Montana by way of California and El Paso, Texas, with little art training (he studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York). When he arrived in Santa Fe he found no formal exhibition group like the Taos Society of Artists; thus was Los Cinco Pintores (the Five Painters) formed. The group consisted of Ellis, Józef Bakós, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster.
The five young painters, all under thirty, considered themselves the radical young avant-garde artists of Santa Fe. They had absorbed something of the idealism and new social concepts which were in the air after World War I, and advocated that modern art was for the common man. As written in their initial statement of purpose, “The concept is that art is universal, that it sings to the peasant laborer as well as to the connoisseur.” Their styles and subject matter were widely divergent, but the purpose of the group was to socialize and promote sales.
Although tagged with the label “modernist” (mostly for exhibition purposes), it is clearly evident in Ellis’s paintings that he never seriously accepted the modernist idiom into his work. The influence of American Impressionism is evident in Ellis’s prominent brushwork, lack of detail, and arresting sense of light, all of which link his romantic landscapes more closely to the works of the Taos founders than to any experimental Santa Fe painting. Van Deren Coke stated that, as a self-taught artist of “earthy humility,” Ellis “has a vigorous way of applying his paint with a controlled fluency that gives his landscapes a boldness that is appealing.”
Ellis, considered the “loner” of the Pintores, married and spent a period of time in Espanola, about twenty-five miles north of Santa Fe. Later, he settled about ten miles east of Santa Fe in a home that came to be regarded as one of the most beautiful of the haciendas in that area. His wife was a member of an old, aristocratic New Mexican family that owned a large piece of property in Santa Fe where the Hilton Inn was subsequently located.
While based in Santa Fe, Ellis continued to be active in Los Angeles, California and also painted Arizona landscapes, including Canyon de Chelly, on trips between California and Santa Fe. He was able to make a good living, selling his paintings against the tide of modernism. Ellis lived the later part of his life alone on Canyon Road in Santa Fe, in the home built by artist William Penhallow Henderson.