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Monday, October 7, 2013

Desire in Miniature: The Mystery of Sarah Goodridge

by Lori Lamothe

This is one story that really does begin on a dark and stormy night. I discovered Sarah Goodridge by candlelight in a century-old colonial, listening to the heartbeat of a summer storm. Considering the nature of Ms. Goodridge, the setting seems uncannily appropriate. Earlier that day I had been walking my dog when I noticed the stone marker on the front lawn of the house next door. I must have passed that stone dozens of times since I had moved to Templeton, Massachusetts a year and a half earlier. But I had never actually bothered to stop and read the plaque bolted to the stone. This time I did:

Goodridge Homestead
Erected in 1775 by Ebenezer Goodridge
Birthplace of Talented Templeton Family
Sarah Goodridge (1788-1853), renowned miniature
portrait painter of Boston, pupil of Gilbert Stuart
William Goodridge (1777-1835), built virtually every
church organ in Boston between 1805 and 1832.

Not exactly riveting stuff, but it was sort of cool to be living next door to the former home of the talented Templeton family. One of the not-so-nice features of my house was that it happened to be next to a chair factory; by that point I was definitely getting tired of the phrase,“I hardly know they’re there.” A painter and a workaholic organ-maker seemed like a definite improvement.

For the rest of the day I forgot about the plaque and went about my usual routine: changing diapers, making the pretense of cleaning, attempting to get more food into my daughter’s mouth than on the dining room floor. So it wasn’t until later, after my daughter was asleep and I found myself sitting at my dining room table, that my quest began in earnest. The storm had knocked the power out about an hour earlier and the table was covered with a cacophony of leftover scented candles. I sat a moment, watching the sheet lightning flash to the east, then booted up my laptop.

“Do you think you should be doing that?” my husband asked.
“Why not?”

Of course, he was probably right. Didn’t they say if you could hear the thunder, even from a distance, you still could be struck by lightning? On the other hand, the anonymous they always seemed to err on the side of outlandish caution. Before my husband could protest any further, my desktop screen appeared and I clicked onto Google.

I’m not really sure what I expected to find. Not much, I can assure you. Maybe a line or two on Wikipedia (a guilty pleasure) or the free version of Encyclopedia Britannica. If I were lucky, an image of one of Goodridge’s miniatures, which are the eighteenth-century equivalent of the family photos we carry around in our wallets. Without really giving it much thought, I had conjured up a rather dreary portrait of a matronly woman, hair pulled tightly back and lips grimly closed. Or perhaps her stout husband, all jowls and scowls, wearing a comb-over and a pocket watch. So when I clicked on the first Google result I was more than a little shocked.

I found myself staring at a pair of bare breasts.

I’m not talking cleavage—not your standard demure line rising out of a darkish gown. No, what I was ogling was a perfectly matched set of rosy nipples. I checked the top of the page to make sure I had gotten the right Sarah Goodridge. I had. I checked the date she had painted it—1828—and found that just as startling as the fact that she had designated the miniature as a self-portrait. She had titled her piece, Beauty Revealed and it was painted on a sliver of ivory that measured just 2 5/8 by 3 1/8 inches. Somehow the diminutive size didn’t make the self-portrait any less surprising.

What was a modest 40-year-old painter living in the Jacksonian era doing painting her own breasts? Exactly who was this Sarah Goodridge of the talented Templeton family? I had a fleeting impulse to Google the brother and find out just what his so-called organs looked like. It would be one thing if Goodridge had lived in the twentieth century; one might expect that sort of daring from a female artist. Georgia O’Keeffe comes to mind, or, at a stretch, Mary Cassatt. But at the time Goodridge painted Beauty Revealed women couldn’t vote and most didn’t even contemplate “making a living” at anything, never mind as artists. Frances Trollope wasn’t the only European to remark upon the diminished role of many American women when she said: “It is in vain that ‘collegiate institutes’ are formed for young ladies, or that ‘academic degrees’ are conferred upon them. It is after marriage, when these young attempts upon all the sciences are forgotten, that the lamentable insignificance of the American woman appears.”

Clearly, Goodridge wasn’t like that. Further investigation revealed that not only had she been quite talent at painting miniatures but that she had made a pretty good living doing it. Born the sixth of nine children, Goodridge had taught herself to draw at a young age with few materials. Her family wasn’t wealthy, so when she ran out of paper she would use a stick to draw portraits of friends and even farm animals in the sand. Eventually, she set off for Boston and managed to secure lessons with the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. Not long afterward, Goodridge set up her own studio and was so successful that she was able to support herself, as well as her mother and an orphaned niece. She had five exhibitions of her work at the Boston Athenaeum, and for nearly thirty years she painted two to three miniatures a week.

Now perhaps I should clarify that Beauty Revealed doesn’t represent Goodridge’s usual mode of composition. She didn’t go around painting married ladies’ bare bosoms. Beauty Revealed is by far her boldest, most stunning effort. So it was with much curiosity that I scanned the Google file to learn who, if anyone, was the recipient of the miniature.

The answer was just as interesting—and as puzzling—as the miniature itself. Not only had Goodridge painted Beauty Revealed for a man, but she had done so for one of the most famous men of her time: Senator Daniel Webster, the handsome lawyer-politician who would run three times for president but never win. Known as “Black Dan” because of his dark hair and fiery personality, Webster had commissioned Goodridge to paint his portrait before and would do so at least a dozen more times. At the time Goodridge presented him with her gift, she was 40 years old and Webster was a widower with three children. He had invited her Washington, D.C. in 1828 to paint his portrait and she had accepted. Less than a year later Webster married a second time—to a wealthy, subdued woman he barely knew—and Goodridge returned to her Boston studio. She never married, nor did she travel out of state again. The two continued to
correspond until her death, and when she died she left her paint box—surely her most valued possession—to Webster. Webster destroyed her letters it seems, but he kept Beauty Revealed with him for the rest of his life. After he died relatives discovered the miniature among his belongings and auctioned it off.

Just what was the nature of their relationship? I craved an answer but no answer was to be found. During the next month I visited the Boston Antiquarian Society and read through Webster’s letters to Goodridge in an effort to learn more. The 44 letters, written between 1827 and 1851, are brief and to the point. Webster would visit her studio at such and such a time to have his portrait painted. Webster was grateful for her miniature. And so on. Whether other letters exist is a matter for speculation, as is the question of whether the two were lovers. Barring a discovery in a neglected corner of some distant relative’s attic, no one may ever know.

Years have passed since that dark and stormy night. I’ve since moved, divorced and gotten a full-time job. Instead of spending my days changing diapers I’m usually trying to transport her to the right place at approximately the right time. There isn’t much time these days to chase down a love story more than two centuries old. But I do find myself thinking of Goodridge and her miniature rather often. In one sense Beauty Revealed hides as much as it divulges; at its heart is a mystery. The tiny self-portrait is painted on ivory so thin light shines through it if you hold it up to a window. Yet within this fragility is the key to the puzzle of Goodridge and Webster.

But what is most important to me is my conception of what Beauty Revealed represents. Though art critics and others interested parties have tended to agree that the miniature is remarkable, they have interpreted its message in very different ways. According to John Updike, the breasts are saying "We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples." Another critic writes that the miniature seduces viewers while celebrating female erotic power. While I tend to agree with the second assessment more than the first (in my opinion Updike makes the miniature sound like the prototype of the personal ad), the miniature’s impact on me has more to do with Goodridge’s power as an artist and as an individual. At a time when men dominated the field, Goodridge practiced her craft and achieved success. She refused to become anything but the artist she wanted to be and she wasn’t afraid to reveal the extent of her artistic power to Webster. And she wasn’t willing to separate her art from her identity—or to accept society’s ideas about what a woman should be, what an artist should paint. In his essay on Goodridge’s miniature, Updike remarks that it was probably the first nude portrait done from life in American history. Had news of Goodridge’s gift to Webster gotten out she would have been vilified by the local gossips. Yet she took the risk, making it clear to Webster that she was a highly talented artist and a woman who refused to hide her desires. Thus a kind of symbiotic relationship between desire and art emerges: Goodridge’s desire imbued her art with power, and her power as an artist gave her the courage to reveal herself as a sensual woman. The act of creating art and the act of creating—or perhaps revealing—identity are inextricably linked. Goodridge devoted her life to art and art returned the favor, bestowing upon her the sort of emotional,
intellectual and financial freedom that was extremely rare for a woman in the early 1800’s.

The idea of art as an act of creating identity has a particular appeal for me. I write poems and continue to struggle with the question of who I am as a person and an artist. A poem is not so unlike one of Goodridge’s miniatures: it attempts to capture, in a relatively confined space, an image using a two-dimensional medium. I came late to poetry and when I did I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I’m not sure I know even now, but I do believe the act of writing has helped me discover who I am and to create an identity that derives, in part, from my relationship with words.

I can only hope to follow the example set by Goodridge: to use art to reveal the world’s hidden beauty, to continue to create an idea of who I am, who I might be. At 40, Goodridge’s breasts surely weren’t as perky, nor was her skin as creamy, as her present to Webster suggests. Yet she chose not to simply reflect reality, preferring instead to paint a portrait that captured a deeper depiction of her self. It is from that deeper self—and Goodridge’s willingness to use her craft to reveal it—that the miniature derives its power. In her journals Mary Shelley once lamented, “What folly is it in me to write trash nobody will read . . . All my many pages—future waste paper—surely I am a fool.” Yet like her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley sought a way to be more than what society told her she should be. The art of words offered her the means to do that. For me, all art always holds within it that same promise: the possibility that I can peel away layers of convention and false security to discover the beauty beneath.

Beauty Revealed, 1828
Sarah Goodridge
(currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Lori Lamothe has published poems, reviews, interviews and stories in various magazines, including 42opus, Blackbird, The Nervous Breakdown, Notre Dame Review, Seattle Review and others. She has poems forthcoming in Brevity, 5 Quarterly and Joy, Interrupted: An Anthology on Motherhood and Loss.

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