When Harvey Ellis died in 1904 at the age of fifty-two, his professional achievements were acknowledged in the architectural press and on the front page of the New York Times, but within a few years he slipped into obscurity that lasted for half a century. Today he is best known for his beautiful architectural renderings and his role in the American Arts and Crafts movement. That he was a fine painter is largely unknown. Unusually observant early childhood drawings predicted artistic abilities that were unmistakable by his seventeenth year, and by the age of thirty he had become a prominent painter and art teacher in Rochester, New York, his native city. His accomplishments as an artist are a significant part of his story, for it was his artists eye and hand that often informed his architectural designs and renderings.
In 1879, while continuing to paint and teach, Ellis and his brother Charles opened an architectural practice, initially turning out small commercial buildings and Eastlake and Queen Anne houses. His personalized versions of Richardsonian Romanesque, Chateauesque, and Beaux-Arts fashions followed between 1886 and 1893 when he worked for several architects in Minnesota and Missouri. During those same years his stunning perspective renderings were published in leading architectural periodicals and imitated by other architects and perspectivists throughout the country.
In 1893 Ellis returned to Rochester, resumed the architectural practice with his brother, and regained prominence as a painter. Superb technical control and an innate aptitude as a colorist allowed him to experiment with a variety of pictorial styles of the day. Shunning American Impressionism, then widely favored by artists and collectors, he embraced Tonalism and the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow and was one of relatively few Americans then responding to French Postimpressionism and Symbolism.
By 1897 Ellis was immersed in the American Arts and Crafts movement and that year a was a cofounder of the Rochester Arts and Crafts Society, the first such organization in the United States. As a result of his involvement in the spring of 1903 with a large Arts and Crafts exhibition organized by Gustav Stickley, the leader of the American movement, Ellis joined the staff of Stickley's Craftsman magazine in Syracuse, New York, just as its architectural department was expanding. His architectural designs introduced its readers to a new level of artistry and sophistication. Ellis now is also credited with certain furniture designs for Stickley; however, there are reasons to question those attributions. His work in Syracuse was brief, for he died just seven months after moving there.
Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis documents Ellis's biography, challenges certain widely circulated misconceptions about him, and presents the full range and cultural context of all aspects of his work: architectural designs, perspective renderings, drawings, paintings, prints, and graphic designs. What has emerged from this appraisal is that Harvey Ellis merits a place in mainstream American art and architectural history.