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Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media

Portraying Pregnancy: from Holbein to Social Media


Comprising material from the 15th century through to the present day, Portraying Pregnancy accompanies an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, which has been the first ever to focus on portraits of pregnant women in British art. The book is extensively illustrated with painted portraits, drawings, miniatures, prints, photographs, sculpture, textiles and objects.


Although up to the early 20th century many women spent most of their adult years being pregnant, their pregnancies are seldom made apparent in surviving portraits. Portraying Pregnancy considers the different ways in which (from the late Middle Ages onwards) a sitter’s pregnancy was, or was not, visibly represented to the viewer.  


This book offers a new lens through which to look at history, and art history, by rethinking the context in which portraits of women were made in the past. Over a span of more than 500 years, Portraying Pregnancy interrogates how the social mores and preoccupations of different periods have impacted the ways in which pregnant women have been depicted – sometimes reinforcing an ‘ideal’ female role (especially within a religious context), while at other times celebrating fertility, or asserting shock value. Prior to the 20th century, the possibility of death in childbirth was a constant reality that brought an additional tension to such a representation. Portraying Pregnancy also explores the extent to which female sitters have had agency over their depiction. 


Written by Karen Hearn, the leading expert on this topic, Portraying Pregnancy addresses representations of pregnancy in a religious context; early popular and medical understanding of pregnancy; dress and fashion; pregnancy portraits in 16th- and early 17th-century England; mid 17th-century female portraits; 18th-century British grand portraiture; the rarity of 19th-century images of pregnant women; the shift in early 20th-century male artists’ depictions of their wives and partners, as they began to celebrate pregnancy visually; how British women artists subsequently addressed their own pregnancies in their work; and a range of later 20th-century nude portrayals.

  • Karen Hearn

    January 2020 
    Paperback, 242 x 168 mm
    144 pages, 60 illustrations 
    ISBN: 978-1-911300-80-9

  • Exhibition & Author Events

    Foundling Museum, London

    Extended dates:

    24 January – 23 August 2020


    Dressing a Picture: Reimagining the Court Portrait 1500 – 1800

    6 & 7 May 2021


    University of Hertfordshire Chancellor's Lecture 

    3 June 2021



    Isabel and Alfred Bader Lecture in European Art

    "Big-Bellied Women: Portraying Pregnancy in 16th– and 17th-Century England"

    14 April 2022

  • In the press

    "Exploring the often wildly inventive ways in which artists in Britain have variously sought to hide, flaunt or spoof the pregnant form in art, from medieval times to the present day, Portraying Pregnancy is as beautiful as it is surprising.""—The Telegraph


    "...fascinating short book accompanies the show" —The Financial Times


    "intriguing selection of portraits, texts and items of clothing"... [the book is] a useful companion" —The Spectator


    " impressive selection of the British artists who have attempted it across the centuries in Portraying Pregnancy..." – The Guardian


    "it marks the starting point of research into a subject whose importance can only grow." – The Times


    "...begins with 15th-century images of the Visitation — part of the New Testament narrative around the Virgin Mary — unfolds chronologically over 500 years of mostly British art and artifacts." – The New York Times


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