Ellis Ruley (USA, 1882-1959), "Autum [sic] Leaves", oil on board. Size: 28" x 22" (board); 25" x 31" (frame).
This painting by self-taught artist Ellis Ruley (1882-1959) is a rarity since much of the artist’s work was destroyed in a house fire shortly after his death, and only 62 pieces remain. The child of escaped slaves, Ruley grew up poor in Norwich, Connecticut, leaving school after the third grade in order to work. In 1929, he suffered an accident as part of his strenuous occupation as a mason's tender, and with the relative fortune of $25,000 he received as compensation, he purchased several acres of land, and married his second wife, a German woman named Wilhelmina Fox. They were the town's first interracial couple. Life in the community was strained and difficult for them, as well as their children, and Ruley's son from his first marriage, who died mysteriously in 1948 from circumstances that may have been murder. Ruley himself was found dead with a head wound in his own driveway, which was ruled to be accidental, despite evidence of a robbery, and his house burned down several weeks later. Much work must have been lost, because according to Joseph Gualtieri, director of Norwich's Slater Museum in the 1950s, the prolific amount of paintings hanging in Ruley's home attested to his commitment to creating art. Ruley’s brightly colored, finely balanced pieces seem to focus on harmony, both in composition and in narrative. Whether the setting is Biblical, modern, or timeless, the paintings generally show fantastic animals or humans in peaceful cohabitation against nature’s backdrop. Ruley’s painting at auction features a man and a woman on horseback, the pair of humans and the pair of horses alike enjoying a pause on a tree-lined path. Though the trees are green, falling triangles of red, yellow and orange suggest a descent of dreamy leaves. The strangeness of the white building to the right of center causes the viewer to reevaulate the white telephone pole above it as possessing a beautiful shape. Ruley’s posthumous reputation as an artist took a turn in 1993 with the publication of Glenn Robert Smith’s book “Discovering Ellis Ruley,” lead to a retrospective of his work that travelled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City in 1996, and a 2002 documentary film.