The Foundling Museum is presenting the first major exhibition to explore representations of the pregnant female body through portraits from the past 500 years, opening in January 2020
Until the twentieth century, many women spent most of their adult years pregnant, yet pregnancies are seldom apparent in surviving portraits.
Even the mystery woman in Jan van Eyck’s famous 1434 Arnolfini Portrait is thought by most art historians to be wearing copious folds of expensive cloth rather than carrying a child.
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The earliest portrait featured in Foundling’s exhibition of the depiction of pregnancy through paintings, prints, photographs, objects and clothing from the fifteenth century to the present day is Hans Holbein II’s beautiful drawing of Sir Thomas More’s daughter, Cicely Heron, made in 1526-7.
Sketched from life, it is a rare, clear-eyed, yet subtle observation of a pregnant woman in elite clothing. There was also a brief vogue for pregnancy portraits of ladies of the elite around the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods – as exemplified by Marcus Gheeraerts II’s 1620 Portrait of a Woman in Red.
At a time when a wife’s principal role was to bear as many healthy heirs as possible to perpetuate and extend the family line, its name and influence, experts believe such a portrait would act as a form of visual evidence of anticipated dynastic success.
At the same time, the childbirth process was potentially so hazardous that the portrait might also have acted as a record of the features of a beloved individual who could shortly die.
Gheeraerts’ portrait appeared in the same era as the ‘mother’s legacy’ text – in which a woman wrote a ‘letter’ for the benefit of her unborn child, in case she should not survive her confinement. An example on show is the manuscript written by Elizabeth Joscelin in 1622 for the child that she was carrying.
Maternal mortality is also powerfully represented by George Dawe’s 1817 portrait of the pregnant Princess Charlotte, the heir to the British throne, wearing a fashionable loose ‘sarafan’ dress. Charlotte died in childbirth, in November that year. Alongside is the actual surviving garment, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that in many pre-twentieth-century works in the exhibition, the sitter’s pregnancy has been edited out?
A mezzotint made after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s full-length portrait of Theresa Parker, for example, shows no visible sign of her pregnancy, in line with conventions of the time, despite rich documentary evidence that by her second sitting in February 1772, Theresa was heavily pregnant.
A portrait of the celebrated eighteenth-century actress, Sarah Siddons, shown in the role of Lady Macbeth, similarly shows no sign of her pregnancy even though she famously played the role until the final weeks of her pregnancy.
By the turn of 19th century Augustus John’s c.1901 full-length portrait of his wife, Ida, must therefore have seemed astonishingly transgressive to contemporary viewers, as it clearly depicted her as pregnant.
In fact, as the exhibition reveals, it was not until the later twentieth century that pregnancy stopped being ‘airbrushed out’ of portraits.
In 1984 the British painter, Ghislaine Howard, produced a powerful self-portrait of herself as heavily pregnant, breaking with the tradition of most female portraits being made by male artists, from a male point of view.
But the watershed moment occurred internationally in August 1991, when Annie Leibovitz’s photographic portrait of the actress Demi Moore, naked and seven months pregnant, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. The image was considered so ‘shocking’ that some retailers refused to stock the issue.
Nevertheless, it marked a culture shift and initiated the trend for more visible celebrations of pregnant bodies – especially nude ones. In 2017 Leibovitz returned to the theme, photographing the pregnant tennis champion, Serena Williams, naked, for Vanity Fair’s August cover.
More recent images, which often reflect increased female agency and empowerment, still remain highly charged.
The final photograph in the exhibition, by Awol Erizku, was commissioned by the singer, Beyoncé Knowles, who posted it on Instagram on 1 February 2017. Erizku’s iconographically complex portrait of Beyoncé, pregnant with twins, veiled and kneeling in front of a screen of flowers, became the most liked Instagram post of that year.
In the centuries’ old history of the female portrait, could it be that Beyoncé is one of the first artists to have really succeeded in taking ownership, not just of representations of their pregnant bodies, but also the distribution of their portraits?
The exhibition is curated by Professor Karen Hearn FSA, previously the curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century British art at Tate Britain and now Honorary Professor at University College London, and forms part of the Foundling Museum’s ongoing programme of exhibiting art that reflects its mission to celebrate the power of individuals and the arts to change lives.
Portraying Pregnancy is at the Foundling Museum from January 24 to April 26 2020
The Foundling Museum
London, Greater London
The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, and continuing today as the children’s charity Coram, the Hospital was set up as an institution ‘for the maintenance and education of exposed…