Chantal Joffe, “Self-Portrait Pregnant II” (2004), © Chantal Joffe, courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice (all images courtesy the Foundling Museum, London)

LONDON — To many, a pregnant woman, in all the magnificent bountifulness of her rotund belly, is the glory of her sex. Does the history of European art agree? Not necessarily.

Chronologically speaking, the coverage is patchy, as a new exhibition on the subject of pregnancy and art from the 16th century on, Portraying Pregnancy – from Holbein to Social Media, makes clear. Sometimes a pregnant woman is shown off as a source of pride. At other historical moments, the bump is an embarrassment, and needs to be hidden from public view.

In the 17th century, portraits of women showing off their newfound shapeliness were not uncommon. In fact, a Flemish painter to the Stuart court called Marcus Gheeraerts II — an almost direct contemporary of Shakespeare’s — made an entire batch of them. Not that the woman was permitted to take much credit for her condition in those Tudor/Jacobean days. The achievement was the man’s, the woman the mere mechanical bearer.

Hans Holbein II, “Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More” (c.1527) (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

Nevertheless, she had God on her side because God had used a woman as the bearer of Jesus Christ. And so, to a degree at least, to be pregnant was also to be sanctified. As in the case of Mary, God’s mother, to be pregnant was solid proof of a Visitation — though not necessarily one announced from on high by a supplicating angel recently burst in through the casement, as the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto once had it.

The earliest portrait of a woman in such a state of grace in this show is by Hans Holbein, and it is one of his most delicate pencil drawings, with color chalk heightening. The pregnant condition of Cecily Heron, Sir Thomas More’s youngest daughter, captured in 1527 or thereabouts, is not over-emphasized — she is wearing a loose gown, which promises to billow in the wind — but nor is it disguised. It is entirely and appropriately present and unashamed. Other portraits of around this time are more pridefully forward-thrusting – that of the formidable Mildred Cecil, for example, she whose husband was chief minister to Elizabeth I.

Pregnancy was, of course, absolutely central to the role of a queen. Who else would be providing the heir? Some disappointed, and suffered the ultimate penalty. Others, like Henrietta Maria, wife of the Stuart king Charles I, did her best — and more. She had nine pregnancies that came to full term between 1629 and 1644. In the case of this marriage, it was he who lost his head. The loss of a great art collector into the bargain, note.

Princess Charlotte’s Russian-style Dress (c. 1817) (Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019)

This exhibition pleasingly digresses from time to time by showing other matters related to the condition of pregnancy. A small ivory “manikin” (c.1680) of a pregnant woman looks as if it might be readily co-opted for a voodoo ceremony. There are garments here, too. We will never know how much of a miserable ordeal it must have been to be constrained by these 17th-century stays, with matching stomacher. They certainly fan out prettily enough in this well-appointed exhibition case in 2020.

Later on, pregnancies slipped behind closed doors. Ladies of swelling means came to be regarded as not quite the thing to be displayed on public view. It was all a little indelicate perhaps, incompatible with endless social self-preening. When the Honorable Theresa Robinson sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds in February 1772 (the child was born in May of that year), you would never guess that she was pregnant at all. The bump is completely concealed.

There was a good deal of correspondence about this tricky situation – after all, the portrait had been commissioned to hang beside the painting of an ancestor. Theresa’s sister had this to say about the matter:

[…] perhaps you may think […] this is an improper time to have her sit, but I assure you she never looked better nor half so fat in the face […] and as for the figure Sir J. says it need not be done quite exact at now […].

Ah Reynolds, ever the soul of cunning when it came to pleasing the prosperous! No wonder Blake regarded him as a blackguard.

Marcus Gheeraerts II, “Portrait of a Woman in Red” (1620) (© Tate)

There were famous exceptions to all this careful concealment, of course. Some women needed to go on working, pregnant or not, and if they flaunted their condition, so be it. The great 18th-century actress Sarah Siddons, for example, went on acting through eight pregnancies, and in a portrait here of her vested all in white, sleepwalking through the role of Lady Macbeth, she is evidently big with child. The show must go on! Who can afford to stop working?

And then, in that same century, there emerged a curious fashion for what were described as “belly pads,” seen here in a hand-colored etching called ‘The Frailties of Fashion” of April 1793 by the great (and merciless) satirist Isaac Cruickshank.

Women wore these eruptions beneath their clothes to make themselves look pregnant. Well, perhaps not quite that… Perhaps the real reason was to put men in mind of the beauty of classical statuary. Whatever the intention, the invention was lampooned savagely in the press.

James Gillray, “… and wouldst thou turn the vile reproach on me?” (1807) (private collection)

And so we move briskly on to the photographic and digital age of now, when empowered actresses and tennis players, heroines to us all, take their unborn offspring into their own hands with glamour and aplomb.

Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of the fully pregnant and fully naked presence of Demi Moore, side-on to the camera, dandling her prize with such assured serenity, caused a sensation when it was published on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in August 1991. That a pregnant woman could look so beautiful to behold! Serena Williams almost reprised the same shot 26 years later.

There is one seriously puzzling omission from this otherwise excellent show. Why is there no direct reference whatsoever to the role that the idea of SIN must have played in determining what is permissible to be put on public view?

Many Christian sects regarded sex as sinful, impure, even dirty. And that would have been one very good reason to hide away all evidence of sexual intercourse. And what better and more blatant evidence of happy bedroom shriekings and rompings could there have been in those pre-IVF days than a pregnant woman, no matter how sober and demure the painted outcome?

Portraying Pregnancy – from Holbein to Social Media continues at the Foundling Museum (40 Brunswick Square, London) through April 26. The exhibition is curated by Karen Hearn.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...