Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Small Wonders

At a time when few American male artists achieved a high standard to match their European counterparts, Sarah Goodridge stood as one of the few women artists who rose to the heights of the profession. Born February 5, 1788, Goodridge painted her own self-portrait many times, including one in 1845 shown above. In that Self-Portrait, done in miniature in a tiny display case, as were most of her small, delicate, detailed works, Goodridge portrays herself working hard at her profession of painting, borrowing from the tradition of male painters who portrayed themselves proudly at work. Rather than looking confidently at the viewer, however, as most male artists did in their professional self-portraits, Goodridge lowers her eyes to the task at hand in a gesture that can be seen as one of feminine humility or, as I prefer to see it, one of concentration in the task at hand and a disdain for the recognition she knew was never coming as she neared the end of her life.

One of the leading miniaturists in the Boston area in the first half of the nineteenth century, Goodridge knew and painted many of the famous figures of her day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Daniel Webster. The Self-Portrait of 1830 (above) shows Goodridge at the height of her powers, confidently looking out of one of her own miniatures. After the death of Webster’s wife, however, that relationship may have become much more intimate. The 1828 self-portrait now known as Beauty Revealed may have been a gift from Goodridge to Webster, who kept it in his possession for the rest of his life. In Beauty Revealed, Goodridge painted her own breasts on a small piece of ivory so thin that light could shine through it, accentuating the glowing effect of the alabaster skin. Around the breasts, the displaced clothing acts almost as a curtain opening upon a private show. John Updike and others have surmised from this image and the fact that Webster’s heirs destroyed all of Goodridge’s letters to Webster as proof that the artist and the statesman conducted a heated affair. However, Beauty Revealed is more evidence of Goodridge’s skill and amazing self-confidence than of any love affair.

In a way, it’s a shame that Goodridge restricted herself to miniatures, such as the one above. Self-taught, Goodridge did receive some instruction from Gilbert Stuart, but her success came almost exclusively from her own abilities and in the face of the pervasive sexism of her time. Women artists of that time, even those as talented as Goodridge, were often forced to paint miniatures out of the belief that they were too frail for grand history painting. Fortunately, most museums recognize the skill involved in these tiny portraits and display them with contemporary works on canvas, but the size and fragility of these works continues to contribute to their being overlooked. Any history of women artists in America should start with Sarah Goodridge, the woman brave enough to bare herself to the world, even if at first only to an audience of one.

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