If you’ve ever perused the walls of the Louvre or simply scrolled through your Instagram feed, you may have noticed that portrayals of pregnancy – in all its beautiful, stretch-marked, feminine glory – rarely make an appearance. Historically, women in Britain and continental Europe spent much of their adult lives preparing for pregnancy, enduring pregnancy or nursing young children, yet images of pregnant women in art are few and far between. Even in 2020, pregnancy and lactation remain somewhat of a taboo, and the folks behind The Foundling Museum’s ‘Portraying Pregnancy’ are determined to change that.
When, where, why
Curated be Karen Hearn, ‘Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to social media’ seeks to “represent the pregnant female body through portraits, over 500 years.” While portraits of pregnant women are scarce, Hearn has sourced artwork from private collections to provide the viewer a rare glimpse at women in various stages of pregnancy through paintings, photos, prints, objects and clothing.
The exhibition, which has already garnered media attention, will run from now until 26th April at The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London.
Portraying pregnancy in the past
Before contraception became widely available in the 20th century, women in Britain (and beyond) spent most of their adult years navigating pregnancy and motherhood. You’d expect to see this reflected in art, but pregnancy was often hidden from view as society urged women to keep their pregnancies private. Pregnancy was, and still is, ‘hidden’ – women wore oversized clothing, withdrew from normal activities and weren’t represented in portraiture. With this in mind, The Foundling Museum has sourced some rare works like the maternity dress that Princess Charlotte wore for her portrait painted by George Dawe in 1817 (on loan from The Royal Collection), and The Foundling Museum’s own painting by William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley, 1750, which features a heavily pregnant woman.
Portraying pregnancy today
While society has moved beyond the attitudes of the past, we’re still held back by the idea that pregnancy shouldn’t be completely out in the open. Pregnancy is still somewhat hidden, with maternity clothes camouflaging a pregnant belly, images of breastfeeding women being removed from Instagram and miscarriage remaining a taboo subject.
At &SISTERS HQ, we believe women should be celebrated at every stage of life, including pregnancy. In an effort to highlight and empower pregnant women, we’ve listed three of our favourite artists who portray pregnancy in the best, most real way possible:
Australian illustrator Christine Emily Yahya regularly depicts pregnant women in her artwork, as she “celebrates people & bodies in all their glory, illustrating the bits and shapes we’re told to hide.”
Self-described “mumma creative” Katherine Jane creates embroidered pieces to celebrate the beauty of the pregnant female form.
Canada-based artist Rachael Howatson creates clean, sleek line drawings that capture the “sacred and simple of motherhood.”
For more information on The Foundling Museum’s Portraying Pregnancy exhibition, visit their information page here.