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500 Years of Pregnant Women in Art


LONDON — The actress Demi Moore stands sideways to the camera, one hand splayed around a breast, another cupping her 7-months-pregnant stomach. The 1991 Annie Leibowitz photograph on the cover of Vanity Fair was a culture-changing moment; an unashamed representation of the pregnant body that shocked the world.

“It was a watershed moment in the representation of pregnancy, the point at which visual images of pregnancy began to be more common,” said Karen Hearn, the curator of “Portraying Pregnancy,” an exhibition running through April 26 at the Foundling Museum in London. “But even 20 years ago, women were still wearing dresses like tents. The problem with pregnancy is that it defines a sexually active woman, and throughout history, that has always been a problem.”

The show, which begins with 15th-century images of the Visitation — part of the New Testament narrative around the Virgin Mary — unfolds chronologically over 500 years of mostly British art and artifacts. It includes portraits, caricatures, garments and curiosities, like a tiny 17th-century anatomical model of a pregnant woman that comes apart to reveal the fetus and organs inside.

“I feel this offers us a fresh lens to look at women’s lives in history,” Ms. Hearn said.

Ms. Hearn first became interested in representations of pregnancy while working as a curator of 16th and 17th-century British art at the Tate museums, she said. While negotiating the acquisition of a 1595 portrait of a visibly pregnant noblewoman, it occurred to her that there was almost no research on the representation of pregnancy in Western art. She began to investigate and lecture on the topic. When she began, around 20 years ago, people often got uncomfortable, she said. “They thought it was indelicate.”

She discovered that while there were images of pregnant women during the 16th and 17th centuries, there were only rare examples to be found between then and the early 20th century. Ms. Hearn said that she focused on British art in the exhibition, but that consultation with specialists in other European countries showed that portrayals of pregnancy over the past several centuries had been relatively rare in most of the West.

During a tour of the exhibition, and in a recent interview, Ms. Hearn discussed some of her favorite images from “Portraying Pregnancy.”

A rare 17th-century representation of the Visitation is depicted in a needlework panel, made from glass beads and metal and silk threads on linen.

“This was probably made by a skilled amateur and the women’s headdresses show the period,” Ms. Hearn said. The embroidery, she added, shows how central the story of the Visitation remained to Christian women’s mythologies and experiences of pregnancy. Mary and Elizabeth are surrounded by detailed plant life, flowers and animals both real and imaginary, images of rich fertility all around them, she pointed out.

In 1526, the German painter Hans Holbein II came to England for the first time, carrying a letter of introduction from the Dutch philosopher Erasmus to his great friend Sir Thomas More, who would soon be King Henry VIII’s lord chancellor. More commissioned a family portrait from the painter, for which Holbein made a number of preparatory sketches, including this drawing, in black and colored chalk, of More’s youngest daughter, Cecily.

“She is wearing the customary bodice of an elite woman of the period, but the front-lacing of her gown has been loosened, and her hands seem to be resting on her stomach, a detail that is more explicit in the full-length depiction of her in the family group,” Ms. Hearn said, adding that women of this period probably simply adapted their clothes to accommodate their pregnancies, rather than having specific garments made.

“What is remarkable that even in this sketch, Holbein captures the vitality and alert intelligence of her expression,” Ms. Hearn added. “She seems comfortable and at ease in her condition.”

The Flemish-born painter Marcus Gheeraerts II was brought to England by his father as a boy, and became a prolific and important court painter from around 1590. “By the time he did this portrait, in 1620, he had been painting visibly pregnant women for 25 years, and his style evolved over the years to become more and more naturalistic,” Ms. Hearns said.

“We don’t know who she is, but the silver embroidery on her skirt, the lace and long pearls suggest she is from a wealthy, elite family. The way her hand lies over the bump is beautifully observed and expressive, and her pregnancy is very obvious,” Ms. Hearn said. This would soon go out of fashion in court circles, she added; by 1625, new dress trends brought by Charles I’s French queen made pregnancy less obvious, and images more ambiguous.

Stays were corset-like garments worn in the 17th century to shape a woman’s figure, and this set, purpose-made for pregnancy and dating from around 1665-75, is paired with a matching “stomacher,” made from matching fabric, which fitted underneath. They are thought to have been produced for Mary Verney, a noblewoman, and are finely made from linen, silk, leather, ribbon and strips of baleen, which came from a whale’s mouth.

“The stomacher lay underneath the stays, which could be loosened as the pregnancy progressed, and the strips at the bottom splay out as you get bigger,” Ms. Hearn said. “It’s astonishing how well these have kept their pattern and color. The quality of these garments reflects the status and life of their owner; it’s almost like a portrait, because they were made specifically for an individual.”

It wasn’t uncommon for 18th-century actresses to carry on working while pregnant, Ms. Hearn said, but Sarah Siddons, one of the leading performers of her day, was particularly stoical, treading the boards for almost the full terms of her eight pregnancies between 1774 and 1794.

“The theater managers obviously wanted her to perform for as long as possible, and she seems to have been happy to do it,” Ms. Hearn said, adding that audiences were very aware of her condition and that the press would frequently speculate about the sex of the expected child.

This 1814 portrait, by G. H. Harlow, was painted after her retirement in 1812, and shows Siddons as Lady Macbeth, her most famous role, which she played during several pregnancies. “It’s the sleepwalking scene and she is wearing a nightgown, which you wouldn’t normally see, and washing her hands of the murder of King Duncan,” Ms. Hearn said. “She doesn’t look too upset really, perhaps just decorously tormented.”

After a long absence in portraiture during the 18th and 19th centuries, pictures of pregnant women began to reappear in the early 20th century, Ms. Hearn said. But even then, they were mostly the work of male artists painting their wives, and kept for private viewing, suggesting a taboo.

“This is quite an early work by Lucian Freud, painted in 1947 soon after his partner, Kitty Garman, had discovered she was pregnant,” Ms. Hearn said. “She is clutching a not-quite-open rose, which connects her back to Tudor and Van Dyke images of pregnancy,” she added.

“Freud had a very clear idea of how he wanted her to pose, and it’s a powerful and disturbing portrait. She looks rather terrified; the pregnancy is part of the narrative although it’s not visible. It’s still a time when pregnancy isn’t in portraits for public consumption,” Ms. Hearn said.

This 1984 painting by Ghislaine Howard, an artist based in Manchester, England, was “a remarkable picture, and an expression of what it might feel like to be pregnant that is very different to the way male artists have depicted pregnancy,” Ms. Hearn said.

Ms. Howard felt there weren’t enough prototypes for images of pregnant women, Ms. Hearn said. “She created this image that has a real sense of weariness and bigness,” she added. “She isn’t elegantly dressed, and we feel the way in which she is waiting. It reminds me of Durer’s “Melancholia” from 1514, which also shows a female figure resting her head on one hand. It’s an extra element that gives the painting part of its power.”

In 2005, Marc Quinn’s marble sculpture “Alison Lapper Pregnant” took up a two-year residence on the fourth plinth, a public art platform, in Trafalgar Square in London. The portrayal of Ms. Lapper, an artist born without arms and with shortened legs, provoked intense controversy.

“I think what’s powerful about this piece is that it’s not allegorical, it’s a person with an actual disability who is also pregnant. Marc Quinn lent us the original marble sculpture he made, which is life-size,” Ms. Hearn said. “You can get very close to it and circle around it.”

Ms. Hearn added that being able to get close to the work, rather than seeing it high up on the plinth, amplified the beauty of the sculpture, with its finely sculpted head and body of pure white marble. “It was a turning point in the representation of pregnancy, a breaking of multiple taboos,” she said.

The artist Jenny Saville is known for her unflinching representations of the female body, often showing figures that are obese, bruised, mutilated or otherwise in conflict with conventional ideas about female beauty. Since having children in 2007 and 2008, Ms. Hearn said, Ms. Saville has been increasingly interested in pregnancy as a subject; she began this painting in 2012 and finished it in the fall last year.

“The painting is so expressive, the tactile sense of the flesh of the figures, the way the women are holding the children,” Ms. Hearn said, adding that the layered imagery is itself a metaphor for pregnancy. “It’s difficult to know how many figures are there; we see ghostly shapes clustered and layers of images,” she said. Here, reproduction is both maternal and artistic.

Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media
Through April 26 at the Foundling Museum in London; foundlingmuseum.org.uk.


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