From the 'Unknown Lady' to Beyoncé, 500 years of pregnancy portraits

Published 30th January 2020
"Portrait of a Woman in Red" (1620) by Marcus Gheeraerts II.
Credit: © Tate
From the 'Unknown Lady' to Beyoncé, 500 years of pregnancy portraits
Written by Kitty Drake, CNN
Over the centuries, portraits of pregnant women reveal a persistent anxiety about the female body.
Despite the fact that many women would have experienced periods of pregnancy, from the end of the 1600s up until the later 20th century, the default position was to conceal any sign that the sitter was expecting a child.
"Portraying Pregnancy," the first major exhibition exploring representations of the pregnant female body through portraits, offers one striking example: the mezzotint from Joshua Reynold's 1770-72 full length portrait of Mrs. John Parker, who is pictured wearing a cloak, cleverly arranged to hide the outline of her body.
"Self-portrait of Mary Beale with her husband Charles and son Bartholomew" (c.1660), by Mary Beale.
"Self-portrait of Mary Beale with her husband Charles and son Bartholomew" (c.1660), by Mary Beale. Credit: © Geffrye Museum, London
In early modern Europe, pregnancy was seen in the Christian context of the Visitation.
In an early 15th century panel painting at St. John the Baptist church in Devon, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are shown patting one another's bellies -- typical of a period where pregnancy was the dispensation of God alone, and the ideal model for maternity was a virgin.
You can trace the history of sexual politics in portraits of visibly pregnant women: from their virtual nonexistence from the end of the 17th century up until the early 20th century, a period when the subject was thought too indelicate for artistic representation; to the work of artists like American painter Alice Neel in the 1960s, who overtly sexualized their pregnant sitters; to Annie Leibovitz's then-polarizing image of Demi Moore from the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991, which was shrink-wrapped on newsstands, as if it were a porn magazine.
Opening a show like "Portraying Pregnancy" would not have been possible until relatively recently, according to curator and culture historian Karen Hearn. "The visible pregnant body demonstrates that a woman is sexually active and that is hugely problematic. When I lectured on this theme 20 years ago, listeners were noticeably uncomfortable. When men wrote about pregnancy portraits they used a euphemism, the French word for pregnancy, 'enceinte.'"
"Electra" (2012-2019) by Jenny Saville.
"Electra" (2012-2019) by Jenny Saville. Credit: © Jenny Saville, Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, Courtesy the artist and Gagosian
At the center of the exhibit, at London's The Foundling Museum, are a number of paintings from 1560-1630, when pregnancy was briefly made overtly visible. Every portrait's fleshly secret -- the fact that a pregnant woman has definitely had sex -- had to be delicately managed by the artist.
Marcus Gheeraerts II's "Portrait of an Unknown Lady" (1595) shows a smiling woman at a late stage of pregnancy, her dress dripping in pearls, associated with purity. Boughs of cherries were common, to show innocence, and a small dog, symbol of marital fidelity, appears in "Portrait of a Woman" (1562), thought to be Catherine Carey, who became Lady Knollys after marriage, and was a cousin of Queen Elizabeth I.
Another anxiety that stalks the pregnancy portrait is death. On discovering she was pregnant in 1622, the educated gentlewoman Elizabeth Joscelin secretly ordered herself a shroud (roughly equivalent in today's terms to ordering your own coffin).
Maternal mortality was so high in the early modern period, that a pregnancy portrait might act as a record of a dynastically significant woman who could shortly be dead.
Letters Elizabeth wrote to her unborn child, correctly predicting her death from childbirth, are included in the exhibit.
"...and wouldst thou turn the vile reproach on me?" (1807) by James Gillray.
"...and wouldst thou turn the vile reproach on me?" (1807) by James Gillray. Credit: Private Collection
We might think of the decision to have children, or not, as an intensely personal thing. But as Hearn points out in her book to accompany the show, "Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media," it has seldom been solely a private matter, and "has been particularly liable to intervention and control by others, especially by wider society."
The vogue for pregnancy portraits in elite circles at this time can partially be explained, Hearn says, by widespread concern over the childlessness of Elizabeth I. In Elizabethan protestant England, a pregnant sitter is fraught with meaning: she faces death, she enacts God's will, and she is gesturing, in a strange, hopeful way, to the throne.
Beyonce's pregnancy portrait by Awol Erizku.
Beyonce's pregnancy portrait by Awol Erizku. Credit: Awol Erizku
Displayed in the exhibition via iPad, Beyoncé's "I Have Three Hearts" by Awol Erizku, is an object lesson in taking control of your pregnant image. The title references her pregnancy with twins, Rumi and Sir, born in June 2017.
Erizku is an artist known for reimagining canonical artworks with black people at their center, and he pictures Beyoncé as the Madonna, her blue veil reminiscent of the Renaissance Mary. But her maternal power is erotic: in the tradition of the Demi Moore photo, Beyoncé is semi-naked, wearing translucent underwear. The photograph deliberately sustains the contradictions that can be seen in 500 years of pregnancy portraits: virgin, mother, Christian, sexual being.
Hearn points out the slight twinge of unease in Beyoncé's expression. She had had miscarriages before this. What has always been feared about the female body -- its violence and its sensuality -- is made visible in this picture. Through the centuries, this is what makes the images of pregnant women so charged. As Hearn puts it, the pregnancy portrait is the space "where death and life intersect."