“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.