Ellen Day Hale received little recognition for her art during her lifetime, but she did win independence as a new kind of woman who rejected her traditional role.
She was one of eight children of the famous Unitarian minister, Edward Everett Hale and Emily Baldwin Perkins.
Her father won literary renown for short stories like The Man Without A Country, and he served as chaplain of the U.S. Senate from 1904-1909. Ellen often helped him as hostess.
Ellen Day Hale
Born Feb. 11, 1855 in Worcester, Mass., Ellen Day Hale grew up in a family full of accomplished women, including her great aunts Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker. Writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman was her first cousin. Her brother, Philip Leslie Hale, was also an accomplished artist and art critic.
Though her family belonged to the Boston Brahmin caste, they didn’t have much money. Ellen would have to support herself with her work, not an easy task for a woman in late 19th century Boston.
She studied painting in Boston and Philadelphia and then, like a thousand other Americans, went to Paris to study art. She studied female anatomy and mastered likenesses of the female form.
Her self-portrait demonstrates her prowess, as well as the influence of French Impressionist Claude Manet.
The painting, which she began in 1884 at the age of 29, tells us a lot about the bold and unconventional Ellen Day Hale. Her bangs, for example, could have connoted promiscuity – or androgyny. Her bold gaze and her fashionable outfit suggest her willingness to push traditional boundaries.
Ellen Day Hale had an art teacher who criticized the central placement of her hands, suggesting she make them smaller and prettier. Ellen refused. When she brought the painting back to show in Boston, one critic said it demonstrated “a man’s strength in the treatment and handling of her subjects.”
Like her brother Philip, Ellen wrote about art. She authored a book, History of Art: A Study of the Lives of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Albrecht Dürer. Unlike her brother, she couldn’t support herself teaching, a profession that offered few opportunities for women.
In 1883, she met the artist Gabrielle de Veaux Clements and they became lifelong partners. Clements taught Hale how to etch while they traveled Europe. Ellen Day Hale saw the commercial possibilities of etching, and sold her images of the European countryside. Later, she and Clements sold etchings of their travels to California, Egypt and Palestine.
They also made money decorating churches. Hale’s niece remembers how they did it:
If a church decoration was under way, Miss Clements and the other old maids might all work on it — painting great oranges, like burning orbs, high on the Tree of Life, or many-colored flowers in the Palestinian grass–while Aunt Nelly worked on the circle of radiance around the Child.
They returned to the United States and moved into a house together in Gloucester, Mass., where they maintained a Boston marriage.
Ellen Day Hale died on her 85th birthday in 1940 in Brookline, Mass.
With thanks to Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 by Kirsten Swinth.
Images: The Willow Whistle, By Madeleinegb – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47425325; June By Madeleinegb – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47425245. This story was upudated in 2021.