Tracing 500 Years Of Pregnancy Portraits, From The Tudors To Today

Jan 26, 2020
Originally published on January 29, 2020 1:09 pm

A new exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London looks closely at 500 years of portraiture to explore how pregnancy was depicted — and not depicted — from the Tudors to today.

Portrait of a Woman in Red, 1620, by Marcus Gheeraerts II
Tate

Curator Karen Hearn has been thinking about this subject "on and off" for more than 20 years. The exhibition focuses mostly on British artwork, and begins in the 17th century. There were a couple forces driving visibly-pregnant portraits in the 1600s, Hearn explains: "Britain, of course, becomes permanently Protestant after 1558 when Elizabeth I comes to the throne," she says. "Catholicism privileges virginity. But Martin Luther writes that the state of a pregnant woman is holy and is preferable to virginity. ... The more children a woman had, the more she was blessed by God."

It was also a time when there was more public focus on women dying in childbirth. "A woman who was visibly pregnant might shortly be dead," Hearn says. In 1622, a woman named Elizabeth Joscelin wrote a letter to her unborn child, just in case she didn't survive the delivery. Joscelin died — most likely of an infection — and a friend of the family found the letter, published it, and it became a bestseller. The letter, on view in the exhibition, "raises the hairs on the back of your neck," Hearn says.

As the 17th century goes on, Hearn found fewer pregnancy portraits. "We have portraits of women who perhaps are making symbolic gestures that perhaps, [or] perhaps not, indicate pregnancy — a hand on the stomach," Hearn explains. "By the time we get to the 18th century, pregnancy isn't being depicted."

Even hinting that a woman was sexually active was taboo. In 1772, Theresa Parker's husband wanted a portrait made of his wife — in a hurry. (It was an "interior decoration matter," Hearn explains.) Parker was pregnant, but she sat for the portrait anyway.

Thomas Watson made this 1773 engraving of Joshua Reynolds' painting The Honourable Mrs Parker.
Yale Center for British Art

She sent letters to members of her family acknowledging that it might seem "improper" to pose for a portrait in her condition. But the artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, a respected portrait painter, reassured her: He'd focus on her face and fill in the rest of the body later, Hearn says. Reynolds painted her in layers of flowing garments — you'd never know she was pregnant.

When Hearn first conceived of the exhibition and the accompanying book, she says she expected to organize it chronologically, marching through each century one by one: 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th. "But quite quickly I realized that that wasn't going to work because there were periods in which I could find so few cases," she says. "So I completely chucked the structure out of the window."

Hearn found that the only way to tackle the subject was as a "series of narratives" focused around individual images and individual women.

"In the 19th century, I haven't found, really, any examples," she says. "It's at the beginning of the 20th century we start to see one or two male artists depicting their wives or partners as pregnant — but these are very private images, and they tend not to really be known about until later in the century."

As the 20th century advances, there are more portraits created by female artists. "We see women painting themselves and their women friends during pregnancy, and of course, their viewpoint is completely different," Hearn says. When female artists become pregnant themselves, "very often their work changes radically — it can be a real watershed."

As the exhibition draws closer to the present day, it focuses on one moment in 1991 as a cultural shift for pregnancy portraiture: Annie Leibovitz's iconic image of Demi Moore which appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine.

Ghislaine Howard's 1984 Self Portrait Pregnant.
Ghislaine Howard

"At the time, the image of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore was enormously shocking. ... It was very controversial," Hearn says. "But, in fact, what happened — it then really sets a template as the 1990s wore on — for just regular people taking images of their partners, it really becomes an approach which anybody might use."

Hearn says that the act of bringing these masterpieces physically together drives home the power and importance of depicting pregnancy.

"This is something that is experienced by 50 percent of society — and the other 50 percent had a little something to do with it." Hearn says. "So it's of enormous importance."

Will Jarvis and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In portrait art, every aspect - from the subject to the pose to the painter - is a deliberate choice. And it's no different when depicting pregnant women. Up until the early 20th century, that choice was often to hide a pregnancy. Even hinting that a woman was sexually active was taboo. A new exhibit at the Foundling Museum in London explores five centuries of pregnancy portraits and evolving attitudes about pregnant women. From the Tudors to Bohemians to Beyonce, it's called "Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein To Social Media." Karen Hearn curated the exhibit. And she joins us now from London. Welcome.

KAREN HEARN: Thank you. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How was the idea for this exhibit conceived?

HEARN: Well, that's very interesting choice of words, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). It was deliberate.

HEARN: (Laughter). I thought so. I actually first started thinking about this subject more than 20 years ago. I was the curator of 16th and 17th century British art at the Tate gallery in London. And the opportunity arose to acquire - Elizabethan portrait of a woman, an unidentified woman, who was very visibly pregnant. And I was surprised to discover not only did the paperwork that refer to the painting not allude to this, which is the most obvious fact about the picture - but also that the subject had not been tackled - so really, on and off over the last 20 years. I've been working away on this as a subject.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What, then, happens - what are the major cultural shifts that we see as time goes on?

HEARN: We start - as it were, the exhibition starts with these very visible depictions of pregnancy. As the 17th century wears on, we have portraits of women who perhaps are making symbolic gestures that perhaps, perhaps not indicate pregnancy - a hand on the stomach. By the time we get to the 18th century, pregnancy isn't being depicted.

We have a very interesting example - a woman called Theresa Parker (ph), whose husband wanted a full-length portrait of her in a hurry. Now, she was pregnant. But she continued to go for her painting sessions. And in the resultant picture, she doesn't look pregnant. She has a kind of scarf, mantle around her body. But she certainly is not depicted as pregnant.

In the 19th century, I haven't found, really, any examples. It's at the beginning of the 20th century we start to see one or two male artists depicting their wives or partners as pregnant. But these are very private images. And they tend not to really be known about until later in the century.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Part of this, of course, is about the fact of who was painting the pictures, right? I mean, these were - painters were, by and large, men. And, you know, women's bodies and also just motherhood must have been a subject that might not have been as interesting to them.

HEARN: I think there is a fundamental change once - as we advance in the 20th century. We have enough women artists. We've developed enough careers, really. We see women painting themselves and their friends during pregnancy. And, of course, their viewpoint is completely different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can't, of course, talk about portraits of pregnant women without mentioning the iconic photo of Demi Moore photographed by a woman, Annie Liebovitz, in 1991 for Vanity Fair. Your exhibit calls this moment a cultural shift. Can you explain why?

HEARN: At the time, the image of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore was enormously shocking. I know it was very controversial. But, in fact, what happened - it then really sets a template as the 1990s wore on. For just regular people taking images of their partners, it really becomes an approach which anybody might use. So I think that is undoubtedly a key moment in the portrayal of pregnancy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why is it important for us to understand it?

HEARN: Well, goodness me. I mean, this is something that is experienced by 50% of society. And the other 50% have created...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Had something to do with it.

HEARN: Had a little something to do with it. And so it's definitely enormous importance. It's so interesting, really, to see all these grade-A masterpieces together, resonating. And with any exhibition, it's the act of bringing things physically together that always makes more points than you actually had in your head. So I think nothing could be more important, really, than pregnancy portraits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Karen Hearn is a curator of "Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein To Social Media." It's showing at the Foundling Museum in London right now. Thank you very much.

HEARN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIDO TORRELAGUNA'S "YOU'RE HAVING MY BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.