In 1910, the number of paintings by women doubled in the House of Representatives. One artist, Ellen Day Hale, was highly accomplished, and the other, Esther Edmonds, was an emerging talent at the start of her career. In 1910, a flurry of commissions were granted to fill the many gaps in the House's collection of Speaker portraits. Of the 19 issued, most went off without a hitch—except for two, the portraits of John Carlisle and James Orr. Hale and Edmonds skillfully rescued these troubled portraits, assisting in the fulfillment of the project.
Ellen Day Hale accepted the commission for the portrait of Speaker John Griffin Carlisle—who was Speaker from 1883–1889—after it was turned down by artist Hugo Ballin. Hale’s career was well-established in the early 20th century. Fluent in six languages and trained in Boston and Paris, she had been exhibiting since the 1870s. Hale was included in the first American museum exhibition dedicated to women artists held in 1887. Through the next decade, she taught painting and took portrait commissions in Boston.
Just before the Carlisle portrait was offered to her, she was living in Washington, D.C., and serving as a hostess for her father, Senate Chaplain Edward Everett Hale. The atmosphere and opportunities in Washington were said to “ameliorate her burdensome domestic and social duties,” which included “looking after a semi-invalid mother and a famous, sought-after, impractical, extroverted father.” Alongside a traditional role in her father’s household, Hale continued her work as an artist while in Washington, producing what is regarded as some of her best work. Like many of these posthumous Speaker’s portraits commissioned in 1910, Hale’s portrait of Carlisle is based on a photograph—in this case, an often-reproduced carte-de-visite from the early 1880s. She enhanced the three-quarter profile likeness with a subtle, impressionistic rendering of a U.S. flag in the background. The effect is restrained, providing dimension and color without departing too radically from the almost uniformly dark background of the other Speaker’s portraits.
The second work in question is Esther Edmonds’ portrait of James Orr, who was Speaker for one term, 1857–1859. She took over the commission from her father, Abraham Edmonds. Charles Fairman’s 1927 Art and Artists of the Capitol delicately states that “this was due to the fact that the commission arrived too late to comply with the terms.” Mr. Edmonds had in fact died suddenly, so the 23-year-old Ms. Edmonds, herself an up-and-coming painter, stepped in. The Edmonds family had recently moved from New York to South Carolina, where they opened a studio. Just after her father’s death, Ms. Edmonds received many favorable notices for her work. A Columbia newspaper declared that “the gifts of this splendid craftsman (Abraham Edmonds) have lived after him, and his successor is his daughter. . . . She is indeed a gifted young woman, and her talents are being called upon to take the place of her father’s genius and skill.” As Hale did with the Carlisle portrait, Edmonds turned to photographs to establish a good likeness of her subject. The most likely sources for the pose and clothing appear to be photographs from the late 1850s. Edmonds opted to depict the softer, less confrontational expression in the three-quarter length portrait, and the positioning of the bust-length image for her modern, painterly version of Orr. However, as was the case with several of the posthumous portraits of mid-19th century Speakers—the facial hair styles worn by these distinguished men did not translate well in the 20th century, and were thus omitted from the oil portraits intended to commemorate their service for posterity.
In 1911, the Carlisle and Orr portraits arrived on time and well-executed, along with the 17 other new Speakers. Both Hale and Edmonds met with many successes in the coming years. Hale is best known for her domestic genre scenes and her famous self-portrait, which hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Edmonds continued painting portraits, working in South Carolina, New Orleans, and later, Washington, D.C.
Sources: Andrew J. Consentino and Henry H. Glassies, The Capitol Image Painters in Washington,1800-1915, (Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington D.C.), 1983; Charles E. Fairman, Art and Artists of the Capitol, GPO, 1927; “Miss Esther Edmonds’ Success,” State. May 10, 1911.Follow @USHouseHistory