Ellinger, David Y. – American Artist – Pennsylvania Dutch Style

David Y. Ellinger (American, 1913 to 2003)

The following obituary for David Y. Ellinger was published in the May, 2003 issue of the Maine Antique Digest, page 4-A.

“David Ellinger wanted to be remembered as an antiques dealer first, then as a painter,” said Charlie Steinberg, the Abington, Pennsylvania antiques dealer. “He was a very good picker. He found many things now in the Geesey Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he turned up three paintings by Edward Hicks. Among his clients were Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, the Marx Brothers, and Ilka Chase. Ellinger had taste.”

David Ellinger was born in Philadelphia. His mother died when he was five, and when his father remarried, he did not get along with his stepmother. Before he was a teenager he ran away to the country. Mary Law, a farmwoman in Gratersford, took him in and encouraged his artistic talent. When he was ten he filled a copybook with drawings of birds and made a large drawing of Mary Law, which he titled A Glorious Day. Several years later he drew a picture of Mary mending on the reverse. After he graduated from Schwenksville High School, he continued to work as a farmhand and painted in his free time.

He tried his hand at acting and, for a time, was a female impersonator calling himself Una Hale. He did a fire dance documented by a photograph inscribed Una Hale. He also joined a traveling troupe, acting in South Pacific, which played as far as Harrisburg.

Ellinger continued to paint, and, in time, he was asked to produce paintings for a New York gallery, but he never wanted to take commissions. He wanted to paint when he felt like it. He did some paintings for calendars and some silkscreen prints. In the 1930′s he worked as an artist for the WPA, illustrating pottery for the Index of American Design.

Ellinger will be remembered as a prolific painter in the Pennsylvania Dutch style. His paintings and theorems are owned by 14 museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Collectors compete for his work at auction, though, according to Steinberg, Ellinger never made much money from selling his work until he consigned a few to auction in recent years.

“He made his living as an antiques dealer and painted pictures to pay for what he needed. He made pictures in every price range. If someone wanted a small picture, he would make one and charge thirty-five dollars. He got hundreds for a large one. Now these large paintings sell for as much as fifteen thousand to thirty-five thousand.”

Ellinger had 21 one-man shows during his career: the most recent was a retrospective at the Berman Museum at Ursinus College in 1992. He was inspired by Pennsylvania German fraktur and is known for his charming theorems and painted scenes of farm sales, schoolyards, and quilting bees. He often repeated his compositions, but some of his works are unique. He studied at the Barnes Foundation and was a personal friend of the late Albert Barnes, who bought some of his paintings for his country house KerFeal in Chester County.

In the 1980′s and 1990′s Ellinger continued to paint pictures to pay for his needs, but did not paint much in the last six or seven years. “His methods were time-consuming and exacting, and his eyes were failing,” said Steinberg. “For the theorems, he would age the velvet and cut the stencils out of stiff paper. The stencils just gave him the outline, the rest he painted freehand. He painted with a pointed brush in a kind of pointillist technique, with the best paints, and sometimes he would use egg whites to give his paints a gloss.”

Steinberg called Ellinger a lovable scoundrel. “He lived with us when I was a child, and then he lived with the Yost family, and in his last years young Richard Yost looked after him. He broke his hip in mid-January and never recovered.”

Although he never married or had children, the Yosts were his family. “He was like a grandfather to me and my brother and sister,” said Richard Yost. “He loved gardens. My dad had his vegetable garden, and David would plant his flower gardens everywhere. He painted flowers right from his own garden. He would pick his flowers, put them in a vase, and sit there and paint a still life.”

According to Yost, David’s half-sister’s husband, Duke Lambert, made many of his frames, which he would order in quantity in various styles. Yost said that Ellinger tried block prints, made some sculpture out of concrete, painted some boxes and chests, and made Christmas ornaments. “His Easter eggs outdid anyone else’s,” Yost remembered. “He hid the Easter eggs and organized the hunt.”

David Ellinger died of heart failure at Phoenixville Hospital on March 24, 2003. He was 89.

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