Fremont Ellis was born in 1897 in Virginia City, Montana, a small, remote mining town. The area was having a second gold boom, and it was crowded with engineers and miners. Ellis later commented, "I don't know if there was any influence in such a beginning, but I guess I got off to a roaring start."
The family moved to multiple towns in Montana during Ellis's childhood. His father dabbled in mining, worked as dentist, and later became a showman. He trained a horse to do fancy tricks, and then he ran motion picture theaters. Due to their gypsy lifestyle, Ellis did not attend school past the first grade. Instead, he learned from his mother, a hat designer, and father, whom he described as a man with a marvelous imagination.
During his early-teen years, Ellis and his family traveled through the Carolinas, Georgia and Virginia. In 1910, they moved to New York. He reluctantly went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother. Ellis was mesmerized by the paintings. He especially loved Albert Bierstadt's depictions of western landscapes. For weeks, he returned to study the paintings, day after day. He would buy inexpensive, black and white prints, and attempt to copy them at home. He had to remember the light and color on his own, and this is how he learned to remember what he saw. He also added his own expression to the work, which came from his mind's eye. In an interview with freelance writer Barbara Whipple, he said: "Physical vision you must have, but you must have the mental vision to go with it. You see with the mental vision as well as the physical."
Ellis began to paint with oils, thanks to a Christmas gift in 1910. When he was around fourteen, his father enrolled him in the Art Student's League. He attended classes for three months. Then, he declared that the outdoors was his best teacher and continued to paint on his own. He read often, though, and studied art and artists extensively.
The family moved to El Paso, Texas, and at 18 years old, Ellis had his first show at a Local University Club. His work sold well. A dealer in El Paso agreed to represent him. At the age of 21, Ellis traveled to Santa Fe to spend the summer with family friends, Albert Severs and his wife. He was immediately in love with the town. He said, later, "It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen." He loved the landscape, the atmosphere, and the architecture.
Ellis also fell in love with a a beautiful young woman in Santa Fe: Laurencita Gonzales. She was a descendent of Spanish colonists, and did not speak much English. Nor did Ellis speak Spanish, but the language of love was enough, and the two of them were married. In Santa Fe, in 1921, Ellis and four other artists, Jozef Bakos, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster, formed Los Cinco Pintores. All five artists were under 30, and Ellis was the youngest of them all.
Los Cinco Pintores is considered one of the most important artist groups in the Southwest. Though loosely organized and known for being impulsive, the group was dedicated to sharing art with the people, and not surrendering to commercialism. Each painter had an individual style; it was their camaraderie and philosophy that held the group together. They are the seed that inspired the Canyon Road art galleries in Santa Fe.
Though he was not an instant success, Ellis became quite famous during his lifetime. His painting are highly emotional, and sometimes have a hint of gloom, but he was well-liked. An impressionistic painter, with a love of nature, and light, Ellis' brushwork is vivid and definite. Towards the end of his life, he said, "The thing that really makes a picture good—you can't tell."
Ellis won numerous awards, including the Huntington award for best landscape in the Los Angeles Museum in 1924, the Hazel Hyde Morrison Prize and the Bronze Medal at the Oakland Museum, and a gold medal in 1975 from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. However, he refused to accept these awards in person, and remained unassuming until he died, at the age of 87, in 1985.