It is a painting so seductive, so intriguing, we cannot help but want to know the story behind it. Adding to the seductiveness is the fact that these pale breasts encircled by a swirl of cloth, painted on a thin plate of ivory 2.6 inches high and 3.1 inches long, belonged to the woman who painted them: an accomplished miniaturist named Sarah Goodridge (b. 1788). Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Goodridge sent this particular miniature (enclosed in a leather case that could be closed with two clasps) to the recently widowed United States senator Daniel Webster in 1828.
Goodridge’s relationship with Webster had begun a year earlier and would continue until his death in 1852. Though obviously attracted to each other, the two saw each other infrequently: Webster visited Goodridge in Boston several times, paying her to paint his and his family’s portraits, and Goodridge, for her part, visited him twice — once in 1828, after the death of his first wife, and again in 1841–2, when he was separated from his second wife. “Whether Webster had any sexual involvement with [Goodridge] cannot be proved one way or the other,” Webster’s biographer Robert Remini says cautiously, before adding: “although the fact that she sent him a self-portrait with her breasts exposed raises suspicions.”
But Beauty Revealed is not a “self-portrait with the [Goodridge’s] breasts exposed”; it’s a self-portrait exclusively of her breasts. As Dr Chelsea Nichols points out, on her blog The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things, Goodridge was sending Webster the 19th-century equivalent of “a saucy nudie pic” (which also managed, by hiding her face, to protect her identity from prying, puritanical eyes).
There’s no denying Beauty Revealed is a proto-sext — a sext kept by Webster all his life and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by his descendants. Just as remarkably, though, it’s an artful eroticization of the tradition of “eye miniatures” — said to have begun when George IV wanted to send his beloved Maria Anne Fitzherbert a token of his affection.
Eye miniatures — which were also typically painted on small sheets of ivory — acted as a substitute for the gaze of the absent beloved. Beauty Revealed, of course, acted as a substitute for something else. Like the miniature portraits Goodridge painted for hire, this picture of her bare breasts was meant to be treasured and touched. It was, clearly, meant to arouse.
John Updike, in his 1993 speculative essay “The Revealed and the Concealed”, imagines that Goodridge sent Webster Beauty Revealed as an erotic “offer”, as though to say: “Come to us, and we will comfort you… We are yours for the taking, in all our ivory loveliness, with our tenderly stippled nipples”. If this was the case, Updike continues, “the offer…was not taken. Webster needed not just love but money.” In May of 1829 he courted the wealthy Catherine Van Renssalaer, and when that didn’t work out turned to Caroline Le Roy, the daughter of a prominent New York merchant, whom he soon married. Goodridge remained single all her life.
Nichols, in her equally speculative post, detects in Goodridge’s self-portrait not a sexual offering but “the confidence and passions of a woman way ahead of her time, who has proudly embraced the eroticism of her body and role as cherished mistress”. She suggests that Goodridge may well never have married deliberately, because she wanted to retain her independence as an artist at a time when being an artist was far from an easy thing for a woman to do.