PREVIEW: Portraying Pregnancy, Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum’s newly announced exhibition will explore the way in which pregnant women have been portrayed in portraits over the last 500 years.

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

On display from the 24th January 2020, the Foundling Museum’s new exhibition will examine how pregnant women have been portrayed in portraits over the last 500 years – particularly since up until the early twentieth century, women spent much of their adult lives pregnant.

This display will bring together many portrait of women – mainly British – who were depicted at a time when they were with child (whether visibly so or not). Through paintings, prints, photographs, objects and clothing from the fifteenth century to the present day, it will highlight the different ways in which pregnancy was, or was not, represented and how shifting social attitudes have impacted on depictions of pregnant women.

A highlight of the exhibition will be the earliest portrait to feature in the exhibition – Hans Holbein II’s beautiful drawing of Sir Thomas More’s daughter, Cicely Heron, made in 1526-7, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.

Meanwhile, the fear of dying in childbirth was a real and common occurrence up until the early twentieth century, with most births taking place at home, often attended by family members, which meant many women witnessed death in childbirth. The Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits  visibly pregnant women, such as Marcus Gheeraerts II’s portrait of a heavily-pregnant Unknown Woman, dated 1620, appeared in the same era as the ‘mother’s legacy’ text – in which a woman wrote a ‘letter’ for the benefit of her unborn child, in case she should not survive her confinement.

Other sections of the exhibition will focus on the importance of Christianity – with stories such as the meeting of the pregnant Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth proving to be of comfort to pregnant women and the changing attitude towards pregnant women thanks to Annie Leibovitz’s photographic portrait of the actress, Demi Moore, naked and seven months pregnant, appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in 1991.

The exhibition is curated by Professor Karen Hearn FSA, previously the curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century British art at Tate Britain (1992-2012) and now Honorary Professor at University College London.

Portraying Pregnancy will be on display at the Foundling Museum from the 24th January until the 26th April.

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