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, anddiscover 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
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.