Ellen Hale was born in Worcester, MA, a member of the prominent Beecher-Hale family. Her father was the author, orator and clergyman Edward Everett Hale and she was the grandniece of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her mother encouraged Ellen and her seven brothers, in particular Philip, born in 1865, to draw. She later assisted Philip with the promotion of his career as an artist.
Beginning in 1873 she attended art classes in Boston. Her first major exhibition was at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Upon Hunt's recommendation she attended classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1878. That same year her works were exhibited at the Boston Art Club, with works by her aunt, Susan Hale, and Helen Knowlton.
In 1881 and 1882 she traveled to Europe studying in France with a number of artists. In 1882 her work was shown at the Royal Academy in London. She returned to the U.S. in 1883 and met Gabrielle de Vaux Clemens, a Philadelphia artist, who taught her printmaking and who became her lifelong friend and lover.
She was accomplished in many of the arts and wrote a number of articles and books. Her series on an American student's perception of Paris and its art world was published in the Boston Traveler. She also wrote a History of Art published in 1888.
Her exhibition record includes most of the important organizations of her time. Her works were shown at the 1885 North, Central and South American Exposition at New Orleans in 1885, the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the Appalachian Exposition of 1910.
When her father was appointed Chaplain of the United States Senate in 1904, she moved to Washington to act as his hostess, until his death in 1909. During this period she received several awards for her oils, watercolors and etchings which were exhibited with the Society of Washington Artist, the Washington Water Color Club, Washington Arts Club and at the Corcoran Gallery.
She continued to live in Washington, summering, with Gabrielle Clements, at their house, "The Thickets," at Folly Cove in Rockport, MA. With the constant visits of her close friends and fellow artists Cecilia Beaux and Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown, as well as her brother Philip and sister-in-law Lillian Wescott Hale, there was much artistic activity during these times.
Hale and Clements also wintered in Charleston, where they taught etching. Their students included such important Southern women artists as Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O'Neill Verner.
This unconventional self-portrait (detail) was painted on Hale's return from Paris. Against a rather mysterious blue background decorated with swirling shapes and spots of bright color, her purposeful, unsmiling face and capable hand stand out from the surrounding soft blackness of dress, hat, and ostrich-feather fan.
A critic writing in 1887 acknowledged the artist's originality and skill: "Miss Ellen Hale ... displays a man's strength in the treatment and handling of her subjects - a massiveness and breadth of effect attained through sound training and native wit and courage".