The Beauty of Pregnancy in Art from Modernism till Now
While the imagery of women and children is greatly depicted throughout history of art, pregnancy is much more of a rare sight. Some blame the canons of classical art, which did not see a woman’s body bearing a child fit in, while others call out the influence of the taboo behind the immaculate conception of Virgin Mary.
With time, the topic found its way to the pedestals and within frames, gradually taking down the veil of controversy and misconception from this natural phenomenon.
Great Expectations – Portraits of Pregnant Women in Art History
Perhaps the oldest known work of art dedicated to pregnancy is the Venus of Willendorf, ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE. It is an oolitic limestone statue of a woman whose breasts and hips have been exaggerated to put emphasis on her fertility. In the 1400s and 1500s, many paintings, such as the famous Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck dated 1434, or Raphael’s La Donna Gravida, were those of pregnant women – among them, there is also Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, although her condition is not clearly visible and was discovered only recently, thanks to infra-red scans and 3D mapping of the canvas. Artists like Johannes Vermeer, Albrecht Dürer, Rubens, Vincent Van Gogh and Laurits Andersen Ring all have women with child among subjects, some drawing inspiration from religion.
From the early 20th century onwards, art tackled pregnancy with more courage and freedom, especially in contemporary practice. For some of the artists, it represented a deeply personal matter, one that was directly linked to their own lives, while others simply paid tribute to women bringing a new life in society, or told stories about tradition and being pregnant in different cultures. While in one of our previous articles dedicated to mothers in art, we revisited legendary works such as Annie Leibovitz’s Demi Moore or Damien Hirst’s The Virgin Mother, here we go further in reviewing pregnancy in art of the 20th and 21st century, through a variety of mediums and approaches.
From Gustav Klimt to Jonathan Yeo, see who depicted the art of being pregnant!
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Gustav Klimt - Hope, II, 1907
One of Gustav Klimt’s traditionally beautiful paintings for which he used gold and platinum leaves is the 1907-08 Hope, II.
It depicts a woman looking down her belly, while three women rest at her feet, prayer or possibly mourning. The decorative elements, in Byzantine style, introduce a marvelous relief on the painting’s surface.
The viewer might notice an unsettling moment, in form of a skull nesting on the woman’s belly, reflecting on the emergence of psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud’s explorations of the child within every adult, which took over Vienna at the turn of the century.
Featured image: Gustav Klimt – Hope, II, 1907, via Wikimedia Commons.
Pablo Picasso - The Pregnant Woman, 1950
Made of plaster, metal armature, wood, ceramic vessels and pottery jars, Pablo Picasso’s Pregnant Woman appears to be a type of wish fulfillment towards his then-partner, Françoise Gilot, with whom he lived between 1946 and 1953.
Miss Gilot apparently refused to have a third child, and the celebrated artist wanted to inspire her to do so by making the sculpture. It also stands as a sort of a fertility totem. Unfortunately for Picasso, his wishes did not come true.
The work was featured in a groundbreaking exhibition of his sculptures, hosted by MoMA, which ended on February 7th, 2016.
Featured image: Pablo Picasso – The Pregnant Woman, 1950, via pablo-ruiz-picasso.net
Alice Neel - Pregnant Woman, 1971
In the midst of the women’s liberation movement between 1964 and 1987, American artist Alice Neel painted a series of seven pregnant nudes. Her models were in the process of becoming a part of her family and making it bigger too, as the artist’s sons and their friends were married to them.
For Alice Neel, the subject of generational renewal was interesting enough for her to portray it, resulting in five reclining and two seated nudes.
Although she was never a declared feminist, her art certainly contributed greatly to the movement, and it also drew attention to the fact that pregnancy was never depicted by her male counterparts, even though ”it’s a basic fact of life”.
Featured image: Alice Neel – Pregnant Woman, 1971, via scholarworks.arcadia.edu
Lucian Freud - Pregnant Girl, 1960-61
In February 2016, Lucian Freud’s 1960-61 Pregnant Girl was the highlight of Sotheby’s London Evening Auction of Contemporary Art, having been sold for $23.2 million and thus setting a new record for an early painting by the artist.
It was described as one of his most tender paintings, as it portrays his lover, then 17-year-old Bernadine Coverley, who was pregnant with their daughter Bella, now an internationally renowned fashion designer.
The artwork also represents an example of his first more expressive pieces, which announced a slow, but radical departure from a realist style, a decision Lucian Freud attributes to his friendship with fellow painter Francis Bacon which, by his own admission, helped him ”feel more daring”.
Featured image: Lucian Freud – Pregnant Girl, 1960-61, via Sotheby’s
Ron Mueck - Pregnant Woman, 2002
She isn’t real, but she looks incredibly so. That’s art of Ron Mueck for you – he is the famous creator of hyperrealistic human figures made of fiberglass and silicone. Oh, and also human hair.
The artist spent about three months studying a living pregnant model and going through anatomical books, photographs and drawings, in order to achieve accuracy. And indeed, his sculpture appears to have recreated a woman carrying a child to the last detail.
The work was on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, where it stood tall as a sort of a monument to motherhood, having the viewers confront pregnancy in ways they’ve never done it before.
Featured image: Ron Mueck – Pregnant Woman, 2002, via naver.com
Marc Quinn - Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005
This powerful, 15-tonne marble sculpture was one in a series created by Marc Quinn, dedicated to pioneering artist Alison Lapper who was born without arms.
This particular piece was placed in Trafalgar Square in London. It aimed to demonstrate that disability is certainly not an obstacle to pregnancy and it celebrated ”a different kind of heroism” as seen in miss Alison Lapper. It also tackles both beauty norms of the Western cultures and the narrow binds of acceptability into which social norms tend to push us.
Marc Quinn created a few other pieces of his model as well, one also featuring her son Parys.
Featured image: Marc Quinn – Alison Lapper Pregnant, 2005, by Brian Robert Marshall / Fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square, London, via Wikimedia Commons
Daniel Edwards - Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston, 2006
Art is life, and life sometimes revolves around the cult of celebrities. Here we see singer Britney Spears, or better yet: her life-size sculpture in celebration of her first-born son Sean Preston.
According to the artist, Daniel Edwards, the Monument to Pro-Life piece honors the singer for ”the rarity of her choice and bravery of her decision”, alluding to the fact Britney Spears choose family over her career at that moment.
The artwork became an emblem for Manhattan’s Right To Life Committee, essentially an anti-abortion group, and it also aims to provide inspiration to those struggling with the “right choice”.
Featured image: Daniel Edwards – Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston, 2006. Courtesy of Capla Kesting Fine Art
Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin - When My Cunt Stopped Living, 2009-2010
This meant that the two extraordinary visions on motherhood, femininity and sexuality, as well as their common use of embroidery and fabric, would finally come together – and they did.
When My Cunt Stopped Living is only one of the works where Louise Bourgeois would first produce a series of gouache paintings of male and female torsos, pregnant women’s bellies and erect phalluses, and then Tracey Emin would add text and images of her own to them. Probably one of the greatest collaborations ever.
Featured image: Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin – When My Cunt Stopped Living, 2009-2010, via MoMA
Marni Kotak - The Birth of Baby X, 2011
By now, you’re used to seeing pregnancy art in form of a painting or a sculpture. But giving birth can also become a performance or an installation piece, and end up in a video you could also call a work of the arts.
Just ask Marni Kotak, who documented her labor in front of an audience at Brooklyn’s Microscope Gallery in 2011. Her first child, Ajax, got to be a real result of an artistic project, which was inspired by other artists like Chris Burden, Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic, according to Marni Kotak.
For a whole month, she lived in the gallery surrounded by furniture and the water pool for home birth, taking note of her physical and mental preparations for the main event.
Featured image: Marni Kotak – The Birth of Baby X, 2011, Installation view w/ artist, courtesy of Marni Kotak & Microscope © 2011
Jonathan Yeo - Sienna (Pregnant), 2012
Another example of the entertainment industry infiltrating the art world is this portrait of actress Sienna Miller, executed by Jonathan Yeo.
The artist is known for his, to say the least, unusual portraits of celebrities and politicians: they are collages made of pornographic images. For him, the image “epitomised the human body in its most naturally beautiful state” and was part of his (I’ve Got You) Under My Skin exhibition in Berlin, right next to other works which document cosmetic surgery patients.
With this painting, Jonathan Yeo paid homage to Sienna Miller, and the courage of a public figure like herself to do a sitting in such state.
Featured image: Jonathan Yeo – Sienna (Pregnant), 2012 via the artist’s website.
Deana Lawson - Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo, 2014
Deana Lawson is a New York-based photographer who traveled to African countries like Jamaica, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo in order to portray their cultural histories. She photographs people she randomly meets while there, fascinated by their behavior, manners, facial expression, the way they are dressed or the acts they’re engaged in.
Deana Lawson’s photography documents all aspects of a culture through their habitants, and in this case, we see a pregnant woman in a certain pose and wearing a dress that reveals her belly. The image evokes a sense of custom, and depicts her environment and the life she’s leading.
Featured image: Deana Lawson – Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo, 2014, via Art Basel, courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.