Friday, April 15, 2011

A Shocking Beauty Revealed: Sarah Goodridge & Daniel Webster

Friday, April 15, 2011
Susan reporting:

There were few professional painters in New England in the early 19th century, and fewer still were women. But for Sarah Goodridge (1788-1853), becoming an artist was never in doubt. One of nine children of a Massachusetts farmer, Sarah taught herself to draw by copying pictures from a book on her mother's sanded kitchen floor. Determined to support herself as an artist, she and her sister moved to Boston in 1820, where Sarah was exposed to other artists' work. Her own work improved, and soon her miniature portraits – exquisitely painted on ivory – were much in demand. Through her commissions, she was soon supporting not only herself, but her aging mother and other family members as well.

But one subject stood out from the others. Daniel Webster (1782-1852) was a lawyer and politician who came to sit for his portrait, as was proper for a man on the rise. But what wasn't proper was the romantic friendship that soon blossomed between Daniel and Sarah. Daniel was a married man with three children, and a liaison with an artist was hardly the best thing for his career. Yet still the two apparently continued to see each other, and she painted a dozen more portraits of him over the next twenty-five years. As is often the case, she preserved his letters to her, while he, more mindful of his reputation, destroyed hers.

When his first wife died in 1828, Sarah's hopes rose. Following a popular trend in England for lovers to exchange miniatures of a beloved's eye or lips, Sarah painted a special miniature to remind Daniel of her charms. Instead of her eyes, however, she offered this much more intimate glimpse of her bared breasts, and likely her heart as well.

But the man known to his enemies as "Black Dan" chose ambition instead of love. Serving his first term as a U.S. Senator and perpetually in money difficulties, he needed to make a more advantageous match. In 1829 he married Caroline LeRoy, a wealthy, well-connected young woman from New York. Yet even this marriage wasn't enough to destroy his friendship with Sarah, and she continued to execute his commissions, traveling twice to see Daniel in Washington, DC.

Sarah never married. When her failing eyesight forced her to give up her painting, she retired to a Massachusetts farm, where she died in 1853 after a stroke.

No one now knows the true depth of Daniel's feelings towards Sarah. But when he died after a fall in 1852, the miniature of her breasts - known now as Beauty Revealed - was discovered among his personal belongings.

Many thanks to Barbara Wells Sarudy, who introduced me to Sarah Goodridge and her miniatures on her excellent blog, 19th Century Women. Please check it out, and discover quite a few wonderful 19th c. artists unjustly overlooked by posterity. 


Above: Self-Portrait by Sarah Goodridge, 1825
Below: Daniel Webster by Sarah Goodridge, 1825

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Today I guess they'd be sexting. Never did like Daniel Webster. He does look like a shady Black Dan, doesn't he?

Regencyresearcher said...

I don't go around bashing men because I don't think all are alike, but many are really hypocrites. They can preach upright living while cheating on the wife and think nothing of it. Men seem to think that the commandment against adultery was only applicable to women.
That portrat of her breasts is shocking. What if his wife ahd fiund it?
You do have one of the most interesting blogs around. Where do you find this stuff?

LaDonna said...

Wow that's some story and some picture too! According to the wikibio, Webster died after falling from his horse. Bet he would have destroyed that miniature if he'd had the time.

Clay and Fiber Artist said...

Never knew Daniel Webster looked like Richard Nixon!

ZipZip said...

Poor girl. More evidence that when in doubt of a lover, never give too much too freely, for the taker will take cheaply what is offered on the cheap.

She was quite talented; I hope her life wasn't tortored.

Very best,

Natalie

Susan Holloway Scott said...

As tempting as it is to imagine Webster as the Bad Guy (and apparently he didn't have a particularly savory reputation with women), we still can only guess about his relationship with Sarah Goodridge. She might have been perfectly content with things as they stood. She might have preferred to concentrate on her art and career rather than marry, esp. to an ambitious politician. Without her letters, everything's conjecture - though fascinating conjecture indeed.

Clay and Fiber Artist, I'll never be able to think of Daniel Webster without thinking of Richard Nixon - perhaps Black Dan and Tricky Dick were separated at birth? *g*

lynn liccardo said...

i came across "beauty revealed" some years ago at exhibition of miniatures at the addison gallery some years ago.

i began investigating with an idea of writing a short play (currently in outline; finishing it is on my to do list) and uncovered some interesting information.

robert remini's 1997 "daniel webster: a man and his time" (i believe the first webster biography written after "beauty revealed" was first seen publicly at a 1991 metropolitan museum of art exhibit) was particularly enlightening.

it turns out that sarah goodridge's first connection to the webster family was in 1819, when she was engaged to paint a miniature of their daughter, julia. the connection was likely sarah's mentor, gilbert stuart, who was commissioned to paint daniel webster's portrait the same year.

i am in complete agreement that sarah may well have preferred to concentrate on her art, rather than marry webster, which is why i found it curious that in your original post you suggested that the affair began while webster's first wife, grace, was still alive, and that after her death, "sarah's hopes rose." it may well be true, but i've found nothing in my research that confirms it.

and while it's clear that her letters to him were destroyed, consider the larger context of his letters to her: these two people knew each other for over 30 years, during a period in history when letters were virtually the only form of communication. yet only 44 of his letters to her survive. i expect most of them were destroyed as well.

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