Nineteenth-Century Sexting

(Note that some of the images and links below are slightly NSFW, insofar as watercolor images of breasts are NSFW.)

“Sexting:” Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary as: “The sending of sexually explicit messages or images by cell phone.” It’s such a distinctly early twenty-first century phenomenon. After all, it’s only within the last decade or so that cameras have become a commonplace feature on cell phones—not to mention the fact that cell phones themselves have become ordinary—not to mention . . . etc., etc. The world has changed a lot in the last couple of decades.

Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, 1828 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Sarah Goodridge, Beauty Revealed, 1828 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

But the sentiment behind sexting is not new. As much as we (ridiculously) tend to think of sex and lust as distinctly of our own, modern times, that’s obviously not the case. Quite the contrary. Take, for example, Sarah Goodridge’s Beauty Revealed, which dates to 1828. A twist on the established Georgian tradition of Lover’s Eye miniatures, in which one’s lover’s eye was painted in miniature, often on a locket or other wearable item so as to be close at hand, Goodridge shifted the focus of this tradition in her piece, making it much more provocative and intimate.

Sarah Goodridge, Self-Portrait, 1830 (originally posted to Flickr as Miniature Painting, Sarah Goodridge: Self Portrait by freeparking 2007-10-06 13:51:40)
Sarah Goodridge, Self-Portrait, 1830 (originally posted to Flickr as Miniature Painting, Sarah Goodridge: Self Portrait by freeparking 2007-10-06 13:51:40)

Goodridge was a Boston-based miniature portraitist, and though she was largely self-taught, she became successful enough to open her own portrait studio. In fact, she earned the esteem of one of the most celebrated portrait painters of her time, Gilbert Stuart. He praised her portrait of him as “the only true likeness” of him.

One of Goodridge’s clients was the politician, Daniel Webster, who was the lucky recipient of Beauty Revealed. Goodridge and Webster had a lifelong “friendship” that thrived, in spite of his two marriages, neither of which were to Goodridge. The two carried on a robust correspondence over the course of more than twenty years, with more than forty letters from Webster to Goodridge surviving today. Additionally, Goodridge hosted him in her studio, painting him at least a dozen times. She also left her home to visit Webster in Washington, D.C. at least twice, one time coinciding with the period after the death of his first wife.

We can read a lot between the lines here. But I think Sarah Goodridge’s portrayal of her own breasts tells us everything we need to know. And isn’t it a beautifully executed painting? Modern-day sexters, take note.

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