Friday, June 9, 2017

All the Frills: Pregnancy Portraits (It's Not What You Think)

So one of the sections of my forthcoming book on honor among the early modern English elite deals with so-called pregnancy portraits – this relatively new development in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century portraiture in which elite women commissioned portraits of themselves while visibly, heavily pregnant. Basically I argue that they see these visual displays of their fecundity as connected to their honor - although it's a bit more nuanced than that, of course.

I still think there’s a lot of truth in that, but now that I’m pregnant myself I also have an appreciation for how, just on a purely corporeal level, pregnancy and all the wacky things it does to your body sort of makes you want to weirdly commemorate it. It truly is an odd experience. I feel both more connected to my body than ever before but also, paradoxically, very separated from it. It is something almost unrecognizable to myself now - something new and different and generative. It's also a very public thing now. I think as women we all accept from a very young age (unfortunately) that our bodies are always, to a degree, public things (certainly more so than men). People will observe our bodies, they will comment on them, they will judge them, they will sometimes think they are entitled to have uninvited physical proximity and/or access to them. But pregnancy adds a new element to this for me because the very inner, very private workings of my femaleness are now on display in a palpable way (not to mention the few times people have tried to touch my stomach and damn near lost a hand). What my biologically female body is capable of is unambiguously on display for all the world to glimpse. It's a very unnerving realization, to be honest.

Anyways, tangent over (sorry!) but here are two of the early modern pregnancy portraits that I consider in the book.

Weekend Reading:


Cee said...

Honestly, I cannot imagine trying to navigate pregnancy while the whole world feels they are entitled to navigate it with you - and the "wisdom" of What to Expect When You're Expecting seriously makes me roll my eyes.

Closet Fashionista said...

Oh wow thats so cool, never even thought of getting portraits painted while pregnant, haha.
And yea...I would walk around with a sign that says "YES, I'M PREGNANT. DON'T TOUCH ME."

LyddieGal said...

At least back then they were fully clothed for their portraits, right? And I can't imagine the audacity of putting one's hand on a stranger's (or even friend) belly! I can't imagine it's fun to have to fend off unwanted touching.

Lorena said...

When I see these portraits all I can think of is how times change !
Where I live the "fashion or custom" has become to have somewhat artistic pictures taken with your stomach exposed when you are in your 7th or 8th month. Wether it be in a bathing suit, in a weird dress, half naked in shadows...
Oh and what an interesting article on fertility and ageing.

Tomma said...

What a great different post about pregnancy!
The portraits are really interesting. The women look so dignified, and the visible pregnancies add to this.
I have never been pregnant (yet) but I know I would hate it if people started to touch my belly!

Elle Sees said...

I don't really see pregnant ladies in paintings, not that I recall, so I was fascinated by those as well as your topic matter for your book. And the links!! The links are always so good!