An inveterate traveler, Ellen Day Hale toured extensively in search of subjects for her paintings and prints. As a result, her romantic landscapes, bold portraits, and charming genre scenes were featured at prestigious exhibition venues in both America and Europe, including the Paris Salon, the Royal Academy in London, and the National Academy of Design in New York. Modern scholars have designated Hale a “New Woman with an old name,” a reference to the artist’s prominent family and her refusal to conform to conventional gender roles in the Victorian era. Hale overcame the obstacles encountered by women working in a male-dominated profession to become an independent and widely respected artist.
Born into the Brahmin Hale-Beecher family of Boston in 1855, Hale’s genealogy is impressive. Her father, Edward Everett Hale, was an influential abolitionist, orator, and clergyman, who served as chaplain to the United States Senate. Her great-great uncle was the Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, and her great aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Hale likely received her first art lessons from yet another successful family member, her aunt Susan Hale, a watercolorist. Hale’s pursuit of a formal art education during the 1870s coincided with the Boston Renaissance, when cultural institutions such as the Boston Public Library and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were established. From 1874 to 1879 Hale attended William Morris Hunt’s school for painting, where she studied under Helen Mary Knowlton. Knowlton taught Hale the Barbizon School method of painting, encouraging her student to develop interpretive sketches that captured the essence of the subject, rather than mechanically drawing it. Their efforts were rewarded in 1878 when the Boston Art Club exhibited work by both women.
In 1881, following a brief stint at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hale commenced a nine-month sojourn to Europe with Knowlton. Following the tradition established by their male counterparts, the two artists traveled throughout northern Europe, then ventured south into France and Italy, visiting museums and copying paintings along the way. Although Hale studied briefly at the British Royal Academy, she eventually left Knowlton in London to pursue instruction in Paris. She studied there with Emmanual Frémiet at the Jardin des Plantes, worked in the atelier of Emile Carolus-Duran, and learned the French academic style at Académie Julian before returning to Boston in 1883.
Hale’s time in Boston was interrupted by her frequent excursions abroad to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, as well as her domestic travels throughout the United States (especially the American West). Despite her general aversion to the traditional limitations imposed on her gender, Hale nonetheless conceded to one: that women not travel alone. Hale found a likeminded female artist and travel companion in Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, who became her lifelong friend. In 1893, the two painters established a household together in Folly Cove near Rockport, an artist’s colony in Massachusetts.
Hale and Clements spent their summers in Rockport, but from 1918 until Hale’s death in 1940, the two wintered in Charleston, South Carolina. Hale’s work created during these residencies reflects her fascination with the local culture. Eager to contribute to the burgeoning arts renaissance taking place in that city, the accomplished printmakers helped organize the Charleston Etchers’ Club, whose founding members included Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, and Alfred Hutty. Verner’s daughter recalled Hale and Clement’s instructions: “We want to leave Charleston some of our skills … Get together a group so you can buy a press and we will show you how to use it … We’ll teach you, so you can teach them.” Established in 1923, the group offered instruction on printmaking, encouraged intellectual exchange, art criticism, and exhibition planning.
Hale’s paintings and etchings, some of which were displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, can now be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and National Portrait Gallery, among others.