Why We Don’t See More Pregnant Women in Art History

Charlotte Jansen
Jan 29, 2020 11:04PM

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

On February 1, 2017, Beyoncé posted the internet-breaking Awol Erizku photograph of herself announcing she was pregnant with twins. In it, she appears kneeling in front of an abundant floral garland and wears a gauzy green veil. While the image seems to have religious references, it’s also highly sensual—an explosive mix and an audacious reclamation of the beatified pregnant image.

While women have always experienced the challenges of pregnancy (until the 20th century, women would often spend most of their fertile years pregnant and giving birth), in art history, the topic is largely absent. According to Karen Hearn, an art historian who specializes in 16th- and 17th-century British art, it’s only in the last 20 years, as women have begun to interrogate their own pregnant bodies and represent them in art and visual culture, that the taboo around the topic has started to shift. Hearn is the curator behind a revealing new exhibition, “Portraying Pregnancy,” at the Foundling Museum, London, through April 26th. The show traces 500 years of pregnancy portraits—including Erizku’s Beyoncé portrait.

Focused predominantly on historic portraits of British women, the exhibition ranges from a remarkable, rarely seen Hans Holbein painting from 1527, on loan from the Royal Collection, to a giant new work by the contemporary British painter Jenny Saville. The latter piece was completed for the exhibition and is being presented to the public for the first time.

Jenny Saville, Electra, 2012-2019. © Jenny Saville. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Hans Holbein II, Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, c. 1527. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.


“Portraying Pregnancy” demonstrates how contradictory attitudes towards pregnant women’s bodies go back centuries in art history. And it shows how those attitudes have shaped the way we see and understand women’s roles in history and in society. This narrative, Foundling’s director Caro Howell noted, has been “missing until now.”

Hearn has been studying pregnancy in art for more than two decades. While working as a curator at the Tate, the opportunity arose to acquire a portrait of an unidentified female sitter, who was “very visibly pregnant.” This, Hearn noted, is rare in portraits from the 16th to 19th centuries, and (mostly older, male) art historians have largely avoided addressing women’s pregnancies in artworks. “Twenty years ago people still felt it indelicate to talk about pregnancy—even using the word pregnant was problematic,” Hearn said.

While pregnancy was long seen as a must for married women, Hearn explained, “it’s a condition that, of course, makes it obvious that a woman has engaged in sexual activity, which was not something people wanted to think about; it’s complicated.” This led artists to avoid depicting pregnancy, Hearn noted, even if their sitter was pregnant.

Princess Charlotte’s Russian-style Dress, c. 1817. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

George Dawe, Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales, 1817. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The thing about a portrait is that it results from a series of choices,” Hearn continued. “There’s nothing inadvertent about it.” The erasure of pregnancy from portrait paintings in Britain appears to have begun around 1630. Until then, Protestantism—then prevalent in England—defined pregnancy, even outside of wedlock, as a “holy state,” meaning pregnancy could be safely shown in art. There were other reasons for showing pregnancy, too. The very high risk of death in childbirth led some husbands to commission pregnancy portraits when they feared their wife might pass away.

The idea of commemorating a legacy or asserting a dynasty is also prominent in these paintings. The show includes the sarafan dress Princess Charlotte wore in her pregnant portrait, painted by George Dawe in 1817. The princess—who was heir to the British throne—would die giving birth later that same year.

However, Hearn noted, due to iconoclasm and the Reformation, most of these artworks are gone. A major part of Hearn’s research is to uncover some of the few surviving examples of pregnancy portraits from the mid–17th century on—and the untold stories that go with them. The few examples of pregnancy portraits Hearn has brought to light often come from intimate relationships. There is a moving full-length portrait from around 1901 by Augustus John of his evidently pregnant wife Ida John—a work that would have been transgressive at the time. Ida was also an artist who studied at the Slade. She died in 1907 giving birth to the couple’s fifth child.

An important turning point came relatively recently, in 1991, when Demi Moore posed, pregnant and nude, for Annie Leibovitz. The photograph would appear on the cover of the August 1991 issue of Vanity Fair. “I remember the controversy,” Hearn recalled. The magazine was shrink-wrapped—like a porn magazine, to obscure the cover—and incited an international news story.

A copy of the magazine is on display in the Foundling show, and although it’s lost its radical effect, it marks a movement—from airbrushing pregnancy out of the picture to airbrushing pregnancy to perfection. A similar ethos can also be felt in a 1988 shot of Neneh Cherry, posing at seven months, and in the Erizku portrait of Bey.

This idealized, beautified, and highly choreographed portrayal of pregnancy in more recent years has its own set of problems, of course. As anyone who’s experienced pregnancy knows, that’s not the full picture. There are few explorations here of the grueling, sometimes-gruesome sides of pregnancy; a 1984 self-portrait painting of a heavily pregnant Ghislaine Howard is perhaps the most relatable. She appears exhausted, slumped in a seated pose.

Ghislaine Howard, Self Portrait Pregnant, 1984. © Ghislaine Howard.

Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait Pregnant II, 2004. © Chantal Joffe. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/ Venice.

Hearn believes that although the moment has come now for this exhibition, it’s “really the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“Once you start using this to look at history, you realize that many women were pregnant while carrying out their careers and public duties,” Hearn continued. “We don’t think about the extra challenges these women faced while their bodies were dealing with the consequences of being pregnant multiple times.”

“I think it sheds fresh light,” Hearn added, “not only on the portraits in history—and I am sure we will find many more of them in which the women were pregnant—but on women in history.”

Charlotte Jansen