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Sarah Goodridge and the Art of Miniature Portraits

Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed
Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, Watercolor on ivory, 2 5/8 x 3 1/8 in. (6.7 x 8 cm), 1828. According to descendants of the statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852), this miniature is a self-portrait Goodridge made for him. Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006. Image courtesy of The Met.

The Early Life of Sarah Goodridge

Sarah Goodridge was born to a farming family in Templeton, Massachusetts, in February 1788. Even as a child, she showed a strong affinity and skill for art. Because paper wasn’t readily available, she resorted to creating her work on the floor of the family’s kitchen.

This resourcefulness and determination in the face of adversity would prove essential for her later career. At the time, women were rarely educated, and they even more rarely were allowed into the world of fine art. Nevertheless, she taught herself how to sketch on pieces of birch bark. 

Beauty Revealed detail by Sarah Goodridge
Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed. Left: full miniature. Right: Detail. Images courtesy of The Met.

At 17, she attended a boarding school near her older brother who’d moved to Milton. Together they would go into the city of Boston, and that’s where she took her first drawing lessons. Goodridge decided to set down roots there, opening her studio in 1820.

That same year, she made contact with artist Gilbert Stuart, a connection that helped spread her name and get more work. Soon, she was making a fine living making portrait miniatures — small paintings of people often given as gifts to lovers and family members. 

Miniature of Gilbert Stuart by Sarah Goodridge
Sarah Goodridge, Miniature of Gilbert Stuart, Watercolor on ivory, 3 21/32 x 2 3/4 in. (9.3 x 7 cm), ca. 1825. The sitter (1755–1828) was a celebrated American portrait painter, best known today for his images of George Washington. Another version of this miniature is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

The Goodridge Portraits

Over the course of the next three decades, Goodridge reigned as the most popular and notable portrait artist in Boston. Her notoriety led to exhibitions throughout the city and even in Washington, D.C. She became so successful that she ended up supporting much of her family, including her mother, a rare occurrence for women in the 19th century.

Many of her works have gone on to be appreciated as far more than keepsakes. The portraits she made for Senator Daniel Webster, General Henry Lee, and her friend and fellow artist Gilbert Stuart have survived as some of the best in her field.

Her painting Beauty Revealed (1828) is a self-portrait of her breasts, and it has come to be recognized as an important milestone in the history of breasts in art. Now a part of the Metropolitan Museum’s collection, this watercolor on ivory gives us a forceful, erotic vision of the artist’s own body. 

So many depictions of the female breast through the history of Western art have focused on them as objects of desire for the male gaze or as metaphors for holy founts from which all blessings flow. But Goodridge’s piece is assertive, a declaration of a woman’s sexual power.

And since she painted it as a gift to her lover, it is also a preserved instance of her own agency in the field of love — though Goodridge was no stranger to claiming agency that the world was not used to giving women.

Sarah Goodridge, Mrs. George Ingersoll (Martha Goldthwaite)
Sarah Goodridge, Mrs. George Ingersoll (Martha Goldthwaite), Watercolor on ivory, 3 1/8 x 2 7/16 in. (7.9 x 6.1 cm), ca. 1820. Maria DeWitt Jesup Fund, 1989. Image courtesy of The Met.
Sarah Goodridge, Portrait of a Lady
Sarah Goodridge, Portrait of a Lady, Watercolor on ivory, 3 1/4 x 2 3/8 in. (8.3 x 6.1 cm), ca. 1820. Gift of Gloria Manney, 2006. Image courtesy of The Met.
Portrait of a Gentleman by Sarah Goodridge
Sarah Goodridge, Portrait of a Gentleman, Watercolor on ivory, 3 1/4 x 2 3/8 in. (8.3 x 6.1 cm), ca. 1825. Dale T. Johnson Fund, 2006. Image courtesy of The Met.
Portrait of a Lady by Sarah Goodridge
Sarah Goodridge, Portrait of a Lady, Watercolor on ivory, 3 13/16 x 2 7/8 in. (9.7 x 7.3 cm), 1830. Gift of J. William Middendorf II, 1968. Image courtesy of The Met.

The Legacy of Sarah Goodridge

Goodridge retired in 1851, her eyesight no longer able to keep up with the demands of miniature painting. She died only two years later.

As a person, she represents all those qualities we have come to identify with the great artist. Her indomitable spirit drove her to create in spite of all obstacles. As a child, a lack of paper couldn’t stop her from drawing. As an adult, lack of access to education couldn’t stop her from making the career she wanted. And through it all, she brought a new view of women to art.