The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

A saucy self-portrait from 1828

Miniature ivory self-portrait painting of a woman's exposed breasts surround by pale cloth
Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, 1828. Watercolour miniature on ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Imagine it is 1828 and you are living in conservative New England, but you want to send a saucy nudie pic to your lover. What’s a girl to do?

Beauty Revealed is a provocative self-portrait by Sarah Goodridge (1788–1853), an American artist who specialized in portrait miniatures. It is teeny tiny — just 6.7 x 8 centimeters — and reveals her bare breasts painted in watercolour on ivory.

Goodridge painted this self-portrait when she was 40 years old, but her breasts look amazingly pert and youthful. The ivory allows soft light to shine through, giving the delicately painted globes a subtle yet ethereal glow. The little birth mark above the left breast reveals that this painting isn’t just generic eroticism — these breasts are specific and unique. And, damn, they are a pair to be proud of.

She gave the painting to her rumored lover, Daniel Webster, upon the death of his first wife. A pretty bold gift for a fresh widower, but probably more comforting than your typical funeral flowers…

Self portrait of female artist Sarah Goodridge with ornate hairstyle and burgundy shawl
Sarah Goodridge, Self Portrait, circa 1825. Watercolour on ivory. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Webster was a prominent Massachusetts politician and lawyer, who was twice the United States Secretary of State. He also had a bit of an unsavory reputation for philandering, financial recklessness and his ruthless ambition. Some historians have speculated that Beauty Revealed was Goodridge’s attempt to lure Webster into marrying her. Apparently the luscious gift didn’t work, because he soon wed a younger and wealthier woman who was more politically advantageous for his career.

1825 portrait of a stern man with a slightly receding hairline, wearing a dark coat and high-necked white shirt.
Sarah Goodridge, Portrait of Daniel Webster, 1825. Portrait miniature on ivory.

Goodridge was born into a large farming family who were too poor to afford paper, so she taught herself to draw by tracing patterns with a stick in the kitchen’s dirt floor. Largely self-taught, she opened her own studio in Boston in 1820, becoming one of the most sought-after miniature painters in the city for the next 30 years. Her work was regularly exhibited at the Boston Atheneum, and she earned many lucrative portrait commissions from New England politicians like Webster and General Henry Lee. Not only was she able to financially support herself, but she also earned enough to support an ailing mother and an orphaned niece for over a decade. She even loaned money to Webster after his second marriage.

1830 self portrait of a posed looking female artist with a red shawl
Sarah Goodridge, Self Portrait, 1830. Watercolor on ivory. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is why I dislike the ‘honey trap’ theory of this painting. Goodridge strikes me as a remarkably independent woman for her time: one of the very first professional artists in New England at a time when there were very few self-supporting painters, let alone female ones. Marrying Webster to become a stuffy politician’s wife would have meant a considerable loss of independence, creative freedom and even financial security for her. And, judging by the self-portrait, Sarah and Daniel enjoyed an erotic and exciting relationship as lovers. Why give all that up?

To me, her bare-breasted self-portrait reflects 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 never married or had children, instead focusing on building a remarkable art career, when all the odds were stacked against her.

She and Webster remained friendly all their lives, and he kept Beauty Revealed in his personal possessions until he died — despite its potential to ignite a career-ruining political scandal. Webster’s descendants held onto the painting until the 1980s, when they sold it at auction. (Can you imagine your lover’s great- great- grandchildren selling off your intimate pictures? Yikes!) This incredible little work is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Miniature ivory self-portrait painting of a woman's exposed breasts surround by pale cloth
Sarah Goodridge, ‘Beauty Revealed’, 1828. Watercolour miniature on ivory.

Thanks to Ambera Wellman, another incredible female artist (and fellow Nova Scotian!), who first introduced me to this remarkable work via her Instagram. Check out Ambera’s own provocative and energetic paintings here. For more strange and wonderful things, please also follow the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things on Instagram.

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