Self Portrait

Ellen Day Hale (American, 1855–1940)


72.39 x 99.06 cm (28 1/2 x 39 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Joseph P. and Anne B. Pellegrino Gallery (Gallery 223)





Ellen Day Hale was one of an increasing number of professional women artists who flourished in the United States during the decades following the Civil War. The daughter of the prominent Unitarian minister, writer, and abolitionist Edward Everett Hale, Ellen Hale grew up in a family noted for its accomplished women, among them author Harriet Beecher Stowe, reformer Catherine Beecher, and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Hale first studied art in Boston, taking advantage of the early educational opportunities that were offered to aspiring women artists by William Rimmer [] and William Morris Hunt [].
Like most ambitious young painters of her day, Hale completed her training in Paris. She enrolled at the Académie Julian, a program favored by Americans that also offered classes for women, who were not permitted to study at the most prestigious art school in Paris, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, until 1897. In Paris Hale perfected her skills as a figure painter, and this assertive self-portrait demonstrates her success. She selected an unusual horizontal format, silhouetted her figure against an ornamental fabric backdrop, and concentrated her attention on her firmly modeled face and hands.

Hale’s forthright presentation, her strong dark colors, and the direct manner in which she engages the viewer recall the work of one of the French painters she most admired, EdouardManet [46.846]. Manet had been known for his confrontational images, strongly painted without subtle nuances of light and shadow. A large retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Paris after his death in 1884, a show Hale most likely saw. It was unusual for a woman artist to adopt such bold qualities in her art, for they were often characterized as masculine, and therefore unsuitable. Hale showed this self-portrait in Boston in 1887, and when one local critic declared that she displayed “a man’s strength,” he meant it as a compliment.[1]

Ellen Day Hale continued to paint throughout her life, later developing a looser, lighter style more influenced by Impressionism. Like many of her Boston colleagues, she did not compromise her dedication to painting the human form, and she often depicted elegant women in interiors.

1. Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, January 1887, 28.

This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).


Lower left: E D Hale/85; Reverse: Ellen Hale 5 Park St, Boston Miss Hale Highland St., Rox.


1885, the artist, Boston, Rockport, and Brookline, Mass.; 1940, by descent to the artist's sister-in-law, Lilian Westcott (Mrs. Philip) Hale (1880-1963), Dedham, Mass.; 1963, by descent to her daughter, Nancy Hale Bowers, Charlottesville, Va.; 1986, gift of Nancy Hale Bowers to the MFA. (Accession Date: November 26, 1986)

Credit Line

Gift of Nancy Hale Bowers