Tracing 500 Years Of Pregnancy Portraits, From The Tudors To Today A new exhibition in London explores the way pregnancy was depicted — and not depicted — in British artworks. Curator Karen Hearn says these portraits reveal evolving attitudes about pregnant women.
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Tracing 500 Years Of Pregnancy Portraits, From The Tudors To Today

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Tracing 500 Years Of Pregnancy Portraits, From The Tudors To Today

Tracing 500 Years Of Pregnancy Portraits, From The Tudors To Today

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In portrait art, every aspect - from the subject to the pose to the painter - is a deliberate choice. And it's no different when depicting pregnant women. Up until the early 20th century, that choice was often to hide a pregnancy. Even hinting that a woman was sexually active was taboo. A new exhibit at the Foundling Museum in London explores five centuries of pregnancy portraits and evolving attitudes about pregnant women. From the Tudors to Bohemians to Beyonce, it's called "Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein To Social Media." Karen Hearn curated the exhibit. And she joins us now from London. Welcome.

KAREN HEARN: Thank you. Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How was the idea for this exhibit conceived?

HEARN: Well, that's very interesting choice of words, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter). It was deliberate.

HEARN: (Laughter). I thought so. I actually first started thinking about this subject more than 20 years ago. I was the curator of 16th and 17th century British art at the Tate gallery in London. And the opportunity arose to acquire - Elizabethan portrait of a woman, an unidentified woman, who was very visibly pregnant. And I was surprised to discover not only did the paperwork that refer to the painting not allude to this, which is the most obvious fact about the picture - but also that the subject had not been tackled - so really, on and off over the last 20 years. I've been working away on this as a subject.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What, then, happens - what are the major cultural shifts that we see as time goes on?

HEARN: We start - as it were, the exhibition starts with these very visible depictions of pregnancy. As the 17th century wears on, we have portraits of women who perhaps are making symbolic gestures that perhaps, perhaps not indicate pregnancy - a hand on the stomach. By the time we get to the 18th century, pregnancy isn't being depicted.

We have a very interesting example - a woman called Theresa Parker (ph), whose husband wanted a full-length portrait of her in a hurry. Now, she was pregnant. But she continued to go for her painting sessions. And in the resultant picture, she doesn't look pregnant. She has a kind of scarf, mantle around her body. But she certainly is not depicted as pregnant.

In the 19th century, I haven't found, really, any examples. It's at the beginning of the 20th century we start to see one or two male artists depicting their wives or partners as pregnant. But these are very private images. And they tend not to really be known about until later in the century.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Part of this, of course, is about the fact of who was painting the pictures, right? I mean, these were - painters were, by and large, men. And, you know, women's bodies and also just motherhood must have been a subject that might not have been as interesting to them.

HEARN: I think there is a fundamental change once - as we advance in the 20th century. We have enough women artists. We've developed enough careers, really. We see women painting themselves and their friends during pregnancy. And, of course, their viewpoint is completely different.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can't, of course, talk about portraits of pregnant women without mentioning the iconic photo of Demi Moore photographed by a woman, Annie Liebovitz, in 1991 for Vanity Fair. Your exhibit calls this moment a cultural shift. Can you explain why?

HEARN: At the time, the image of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore was enormously shocking. I know it was very controversial. But, in fact, what happened - it then really sets a template as the 1990s wore on. For just regular people taking images of their partners, it really becomes an approach which anybody might use. So I think that is undoubtedly a key moment in the portrayal of pregnancy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And why is it important for us to understand it?

HEARN: Well, goodness me. I mean, this is something that is experienced by 50% of society. And the other 50% have created...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Had something to do with it.

HEARN: Had a little something to do with it. And so it's definitely enormous importance. It's so interesting, really, to see all these grade-A masterpieces together, resonating. And with any exhibition, it's the act of bringing things physically together that always makes more points than you actually had in your head. So I think nothing could be more important, really, than pregnancy portraits.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Karen Hearn is a curator of "Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein To Social Media." It's showing at the Foundling Museum in London right now. Thank you very much.

HEARN: Thank you.


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