So there I was, perusing my newly acquired art book from the Metropolitan Museum, when I came across a startling image that seemed totally out of keeping with the book’s general content. But let’s back up for a minute – or several minutes.
The making of portrait miniatures was one area of art in which women were able, as it were, to make their mark early in the world of art history. One of the first was the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757).
From the essay “The Revealed and the Concealed,” by John Updike:
The painting of miniature portraits, to be kept in lockets and leather cases, had become, in the decades before the daguerreotype n the 1840s, a thriving artistic industry, and one of the few in which women could succeed. The delicacy of the work–laying fine strokes or stipples of transparent watercolor upon small squares or ovals of ivory–was thought especially suited for feminine talents.
And this brings us to Sarah Goodridge. Born in Templeton, Massachusetts in 1788, Goodridge showed artistic ability early and was encouraged by her parents to develop her talent. At that time, however, educational opportunities for women were severely limited. She took instruction where and when she could, and was to a large degree self-taught. Here is some of her work:
Sarah Goodridge painted several likenesses of Daniel Webster. They were friends – possibly more than friends. In 1828, shortly after the death of his wife Grace, Goodridge sent him a miniature that was – well, rather unique, at least for the times and the country in which they were living.
Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s display of American portrait miniatures from the Manney Collection in the winter of 1990-1991 were startled to encounter, amid the staid Victorian visages in their tight bonnets and stocks, these luminous bare breasts. Beautifully palpable and framed by a continuous swathe of gauze, they float ownerless and glow like ghosts, or angels, in some transcendental realm whose dark atmosphere lurks in the corners.
There is a certain confrontations; severity about the precisely frontal presentation. The exquisitely tinted and shaded white skin and lipoid softness have the symmetry of armor. And a suggestion of challenge balances that of invitation. Do we imagine plea, a silent chastisement, emanating from these so vivid but ethereally disembodied breasts?
This daring and unprecedented work of art is called Beauty Revealed.
In his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert V Remini informs us that “…Daniel Webster was a passionate, romantic man all his life, however much he hid his feelings from public view.”
He needed female society and contact, and in this period of bereavement he appears to have developed a strong emotional bond with Sarah Goodridge….
If Goodridge was cherishing hopes of a marriage proposal, she was doomed to disappointment. No matter how intense their relationship may have been, Webster needed to marry money. Goodridge, living by her wits and her talent, was comfortable but not wealthy. Webster proceeded to wed Catherine LeRoy, a New York merchant’s daughter, in 1829.
As for Sarah Goodridge, she remained single for the rest of her life. Following Webster’s death, Beauty Revealed remained in the possession of his heirs and descendants, along with the artist’s easel and paintbox. (The family maintained that Sarah Goodridge had been Daniel Webster’s fiancée.) The painting was eventually given to Christie’s to be auctioned, purchased by a gallery, and acquired from thence by collectors Gloria and Richard Manney. The Manneys utlimately donated their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As to Sarah Goodridge’s intent on gifting Daniel Webster with Beauty Revealed, Updike has a pretty good idea of what it was:
Come to us and we will comfort you, the breasts of her self-portrait seem to say. We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples.
(And who else could have said it quite this way but the inimitable, not to say irreverent, John Updike?)