Museum  February 5, 2020  Allison C. Meier

Revealing 500 Years of Unseen Pregnancy Portraiture

© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Textile Panel with Embracing Figures, c.1600.

In the 1980s, the Tate Britain in London acquired a 1620 oil painting of a woman dressed in red by Flemish artist Marcus Gheeraerts II, famed for his portraiture at the Tudor Court. The painting is remarkable for the rich scarlet color on the subject’s dress and the surrounding furniture, as well as exquisite details like a gold ring looped on a black ribbon on her wrist. Yet what was most striking to Karen Hearn, then a curator of 16th- and 17th-century British art at the museum, was how the painting represented a common experience of women that is rarely seen in historic portraiture: pregnancy. 

© Tate

Marcus Gheeraerts II, Portrait of a Woman in Red, 1620.

“What astonished me was that in all the paperwork about the painting, no one was mentioning the most obvious thing about the portrait, which is that the sitter is depicted as visibly pregnant,” Hearn said. Even in the 20th century—especially before Annie Leibovitz’s 1991 photograph of a nude and seven months pregnant Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair which Hearn called a “game-changer”—a portrait of a woman with a baby bump was unusual. This scarcity of portraiture about a universal human experience piqued Hearn’s curiosity and over the following years she sought out more examples, developing her research into lectures and essays. That decades-long investigation has culminated with an exhibition that spans 500 years of history. 

Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media, curated by Hearn, is at the Foundling Museum in London through April 26, bringing together paintings, photographs, prints, clothing, and other related objects from the past five centuries. An accompanying catalogue from Paul Holberton Publishing further examines how women’s pregnancies have been either revealed or hidden over time in response to religious, cultural, and social attitudes.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Hans Holbein II, Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, c. 1527.

“The exhibition is about pregnancy—it’s not about childbirth or motherhood—and that hasn’t been the subject of a substantial exhibition before,” Hearn said. “What I found was that these 16th- and early 17th-century examples were really anomalies and the default has been not to show pregnancy.”

© Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Thomas Watson, after Joshua Reynolds, The Honourable Mrs Parker, 1773.

A delicately sketched-from-life 1526-7 drawing by Hans Holbein of Cicely Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, shows her wearing a loosened bodice that plainly indicates her pregnancy. Yet in a 1772 mezzotint created after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Theresa Parker, the subject is shown full length without any rendering of her pregnancy. Letters that refer to Parker sitting for the portrait reveal that she was in fact heavily pregnant, as well as concerns that posing while pregnant would be “improper.” By the late 18th century, pregnancy had largely been eliminated from British portraiture. Instead, a woman may just hold a hand over a flat stomach or have her body hidden under loose layers of clothes. 

One reason that pregnancy became taboo in portraiture was that it was a very evident reminder that a woman had sex, although the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary made depictions of her pregnant body widespread in pre-Reformation churches. It was also a time of mortal precariousness for pregnant women. Childbirth could be fatal and without access to safe abortions or birth control, it was not always a choice. Portraying Pregnancy includes Elizabeth Joscelin’s 17th-century letter to her unborn child, giving them advice on life if she was to not survive. It was published posthumously after her death in childbirth. As the portraits were predominantly painted by men—there is an exception in Portraying Pregnancy from 17th-century portraitist Mary Beale—the letter provides a woman’s perspective on what was often a harrowing experience in a time of early medicine.

© Ghislaine Howard

Ghislaine Howard, Self Portrait Pregnant, 1984.

As women gained more power over their careers—including as artists—this perspective has shifted. For instance, Ghislaine Howard painted a 1984 self-portrait while pregnant in which she shows both her body and her fatigue. Portraying Pregnancy also features a more recent example: Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement portrait, the most-liked Instagram image of 2017. Although photographer Awol Erizku took the photograph, the singer was entirely in control of how she was presented and portrayed, including on social media. Other contemporary works in Portraying Pregnancy, such as painter Jenny Saville’s self-portrait which was finished for the exhibition, show women making their own powerful statements on this feminine experience.

© Jenny Saville. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian.

Jenny Saville, Electra, 2012-2019.

Hearn acknowledges that there is still much to be explored, particularly in the context of museums where the pregnant female body has frequently been invisible. “I think this is really the beginning of the subject," she said. “There are plenty of opportunities to take it further.”

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.

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