Fertile subjects – The surprising history of pregnancy portraits | Prospero – The Economist

Jan 30th 2020

by R.L.

IT SEEMS A curious paradox. For centuries women could expect to spend a significant amount of their lives pregnant, producing broods that often numbered into the teens. Births would be conducted at home, attended by female friends and family, meaning that the joys and difficulties of labour were familiar. In Britain women who bore several infants to term were seen as beneficiaries of divine favour, as children were considered gifts that cometh of the Lord. Yet despite this social importance, and the frequent depictions of women throughout the history of art, there is a dearth of works showing expectant mothers. Why?

It is really surprisingly late in the 20th century that you are starting to get images of women...as visibly pregnant, says Karen Hearn, the curator of Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media, a new exhibition of mainly British art at the Foundling Museum in London, and the author of an accompanying book. Spanning 500 years, it is the first major show in Britain to explore how the pregnant body has been renderedand more often concealedin art.

In the early modern period expectant women rarely sat for portraits, partly due to the works intensive and time-consuming nature and partly because pregnancy was seen as a transient state and therefore not to be immortalised. If they did sit for a painting, their swelling bellies would probably be edited out of the finished work, considered improper and unseemly, much like smallpox scars or deformities. (Historians and archivists have since used birth records and artists logs, where possible, to deduce whether a subject was with child.)

In the late 15th and 16th centuries, representations of pregnancy were usually confined to a religious setting. Artists referred to the New Testament story of the Visitation (pictured): a meeting of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, her cousin, when both were pregnant. The scene featured in prayer books, embellished manuscripts and wall paintings, though many examples were destroyed during the Reformation. In one surviving 15th-century piece, a segment of a panel carved from alabaster, the two women place one hand on their hearts and the other on their counterparts stomach.

For a short time during Elizabeth Is reign, pregnancy portraits did come into fashion. Marcus Gheeraerts, a Flemish artist and leading court painter (he created the Ditchley Portrait of the queen around 1592), depicted a number of women in wonderful finery. His Unknown Lady in Red (pictured) shows a wealthy womana string of pearls around her neck serving as a symbol both of riches and of purityplacing one hand gently on her bump, a gesture which often featured in his work. While it may seem odd that pregnancy became visible when the monarch was unmarried and without an heir, such portraits may in fact have reflected a widespread undercurrent of anxiety about succession to the English throne, Ms Hearn writes.

At a time when maternal mortality was high, wealthy men may have also preemptively commissioned these portraits as a memento of their wives. Indeed, women addressed these risks directly in mothers legacy texts, which took the form of a letter to their unborn child should they perish in, or shortly after, delivery. A letter by Elizabeth Jocelin, in which she offers moral advice to her future offspring, appears in the exhibition. It was an enormously popular work, reissued 11 times between 1622 and 1674 and reprinted as late as the 19th century. (Jocelin did die shortly after childbirth; her manuscript was discovered after her demise.)

But these pregnancy portraits were something of a blip. Many British artists continued to represent gestation obliquely, if at all, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Pregnancy was a subject of strange shame, almost revulsion (partly because it indicated sexual activity). Joshua Reynolds, painting a full-length portrait in the 1770s, complained that at almost full-term, his subject is at a point of time when Ladies dont look at the best.

As women gained access to family-planning services and had fewer children, pregnancies came to be invested with more meaning and symbolism. In the early- to mid-20th century male painters such as Augustus John, James Cowie, Norman Blamey and Lucien Freud appreciated the beauty of their pregnant partners, but their tender images were usually only intended for private consumption.

It was in the late 20th century, with the advent of the feminist movement and the emergence of more female artists, that this aspect of womens experience started to be publicly explored in art. In 1984 Ghislaine Howard painted herself at an advanced stage of her pregnancy with her first child, one hand supporting her weary head; she undertook many more self-portraits while expecting her second. Both Chantal Joffe and Jenny Saville sought to capture the metamorphic qualities of pregnancy. Ms Saville, echoing Leonardo da Vincis style, sketches a profusion of lines and figures (pictured). I kept thinking of the formation of flesh and limbs inside my body, of regeneration, she has said. My multiple drawingsone on top of anotherare a way of communicating those feelings.

But the real breakthrough of such imagery to the mainstream came in 1991 when Demi Moore, an actor, posed naked for Annie Leibovitz while seven months pregnant. The photograph, printed on the cover of Vanity Fair in August of that year, was provocative: newsstands treated the image as if it were obscene, placing it on the top shelf or encasing it in a brown paper bag. Yet the issue sold more than 1m copies (200,000 more than was typical), and it signified that pregnancy was not something to be hidden from sight. Other celebritiesnotably Serena Williams, a tennis player, and Beyonc, a pop starhave since followed suit.

The exhibitions and books focus on pregnancy, rather than motherhood more generally, may seem narrow. But they still point to a bigger story, one of womens social and economic position and their bodily autonomy. Its offering another lens through which to look at womens history, Ms Hearn says.

Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media continues at the Foundling Museum, London, until April 26th

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Fertile subjects - The surprising history of pregnancy portraits | Prospero - The Economist

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