Sociocultural Representation of Pregnancy in Modern Art History

Bronze artwork statue of pregnancy
Image source:

 “There are only two sexes, their meeting is necessary to procreate, which creates a succession of generations whose natural order cannot be reversed” (Héritier, 1996). This article about pregnancy in art explores the relationship between the sexes, which remains a universal figure that raises questions. Lacking our biological knowledge, primitive humans tried to think about the origin of the world and, above all, its continuity.

Although it was recognized that life was shared by two genders, one thing remained incomprehensible. Women are able to beget children of both sexes while men cannot. How can we explain this universal difference? Françoise Héritier’s hypothesis is the desire to control reproduction on the part of those who do not have this power.

If it is indeed through men that women become pregnant, the portrait of the female sex as ‘a uterus involving motherhood and domesticity’ (Héritier, 1996), has emerged. Thus, the relationship between the sexes is the oldest and most primitive form of domination. Any hierarchy involves the calumny of women through the rites, myths, and cultures of human civilizations.

Pregnancy is the essential condition for the continuity of the human species. Thus, the fascination with a woman’s ability to bring forth life will be observed through the spectrum of art. This article proposes a collection of artistic images of pregnancy in its temporal evolution. The representation of pregnancy in art will question the consideration given to the fertility of women in the organization of society.

Pregnancy in art: The legacy of Eve’s original sin

In ancient Greco-Roman times, pregnancy was seen as an illness. Consequently, the representation of breastfeeding, a symbol of fertility, was preferred to that of a rounded belly. The advent of the Christian era helped to keep women in a position of servitude. Indeed, the spread of church discourse associated pregnancy with the legacy of Eve’s sin. For instance, the third chapter of Genesis, which states “You shall bear children in pain”, marks the basis of divine punishment for all of Eve’s descendants. Certainly, it was the vulnerability of carnal desire that was responsible for the expulsion of humans from earthly paradise. From then on, childbirth, the subject of suffering, marks the irreversible curse weighing on the female gender.

Pregnancy in art
‘La danse macabre des femmes : La nouvelle Mariée, la Femme grosse’ (A macabre dance of women: A young bride and a fat woman). Guy Marchant, 1491. Image source: AKG images

Fertility is embodied in the death lurking around the woman. Thus, ‘A young bride’ becomes ‘a fat woman’, dragged through the unbearable torment of childbirth. To clarify, this frightening dance is the result of carnal disobedience to God, whose fury takes the form of a divine curse on the woman. If this representation of pregnancy necessarily leads humanity to its ruin and tragedy, the evolution of the portrait of femininity affirms the divine place granted to her through the Virgin Mary.

Pregnancy in art as the redemptive figure of humanity

Christianity reflects the contradictory nature of the representation of pregnancy. 

Pregnancy in art
Pregnant Virgin, Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral. 15th century Evora. Image source: Notes from Camelid Country

Despite her perpetual virginity, Mary’s body shelters the physical incarnation of God through the birth of Christ. Indeed, designated as the ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos), her redemption from mortal sin is proclaimed with enthusiasm. Mary’s pregnancy is credited with devotion to Christian prayers and religious rituals. She represents an intermediary between humanity and the sacred figure of God.

Embodying the salvation of humanity, the salutary representation of Mary’s childbirth allows for positive identification of mothers by attributing to them a necessary role. If the model of childbirth is particularly spiritual, Our Lady of the Assumption emphasizes Mary’s body, whose roundness reveals fertilization by God. The heavy curtains are illuminating the Virgin. Although the figure of Mary warranted unity between the divine and humanity, this reverence was specific to her pregnancy and not generalized to women during the Middle Ages. 

The rebirth of an object of study

Pregnancy in art
Estienne de La Rivière, 1546. Image source: OpenEdition Books

Indeed, during the Middle Ages until the 19th century,  pregnancy was greatly discrete. If art rarely represented maternity, this stage raised questions in the anatomical world. The Renaissance period witnessed a growing medical interest in pregnancy.

Advances in biology have led physicians to examine the mystery of the development of a living being. From then on, the nature of women’s bodies was studied, highlighting men’s fascination with the procreative capacity of their female counterparts. Although science was concerned with this phenomenon, pregnant women’s works highlight the faithfulness of Christian symbolism.

In the depictions, the figure of a child procreated in the image of God, demonstrates the lack of realism. The organs of the woman were, indeed, ignored for a long time by science. It should be noted that the uterus, translated as hysteria, was considered to be a specific disease of the female gender. Hysteria has its etymological origin in the ancient Greek ‘Ustera’, derived from the adjective ‘Usteros’, meaning ‘that which is below. The medical field then appropriated the use of the word hysterical to describe women as ‘sick of the womb’.

The first medical works dedicated to pregnant women depicted them in a flayed manner, with their bellies open, naked, and subject to careful male observation whose mysterious gaze reflects the controversies. The biological image of women was unrealistic; they resembled statues. Thus, pregnancy remains a taboo subject; socially, medically, and artistically denigrated, despite medical attempts to explain the reasons for it.

Pregnancy in art as a representation of the taboo

The desire of a fat woman. Honoré Daumier, 1839. Image source: Fine Arts Museums of San Fransisco

Although the pregnancy was not of scientific interest, childbirth remained a subject that raises questions and controversy. The 19th century saw an explosion in the proliferation of newspapers, and caricatures came onto the scene. This satirical exaggeration of a character trait and a defect then set its sights on pregnancy.

The caricatures multiplied stereotypes and depicted the sexual hysteria of pregnant women. The greed of the flesh is attributed to women who are compared to ogresses. The numerous caricatures suggesting a correlation between hysteria and sexual attraction seem to reveal a taboo, that of the lack of understanding of the woman’s body and the hormonal outbreak caused by childbirth.

If the representation of motherhood through pregnancy in art has a certain place in Christian art, it is thanks to the saintly figure of Mary. If nudity also has an artistic legitimacy, it is thanks to mythology. Thus, the place given to the representation of pregnancy is emblematic of piety but not of reality.

The Origin of the World

The absence of sexuality, sensuality, and nudity is fundamental to understanding what this subject implies in art and in society. As a result, it is essential to look at the reactions to the painting The Origin of the World (Courbet, 1866) to understand the quarrel it involved. The viewer faces the open thighs of a woman without a face.

The origin of the world. Gustave Courbet, 1866
The origin of the world. Gustave Courbet, 1866. Image source: Musée d’Orsay

The intimacy revealed in daylight, without mythological or religious artifice, reminds us that every human being comes from the belly of their mother, whose womb is highlighted. Thierry Savatier questions the possible pregnancy of the woman depicted at the sight of her physical attributes. If this is the case, the symbolism of this oil on canvas is threefold. The uterus, the nudity of the body, and the title of the painting symbolize motherhood as universal, at the root of the origin of humanity, the origin of the world. For instance, motherhood is no longer a holy, untouchable, and pure act, but the act of life itself, of which only a woman’s body is capable.

Pregnancy in art: A woman’s act seen by a woman

Although the state of pregnancy was given a more important place in the arts during the 19th century, this experience, specific to the female gender, was still approached, painted, and drawn by men. The autonomy gained by women was gradually accompanied by a consideration of their conditions. The obsession with portraying the experience of childbirth was born. The art of representing pregnancy gives itself over to the revelations of women’s own perspectives. Painting testifies the traumas engendered by an unexpressed reality.

For instance, after surviving the trauma of a miscarriage, Frida Kahlo chose to depict it. This oil on metal panel contrasts with the idealized representation of birth and pregnancy in general. Henry Ford Hospital witnesses the suffering caused by a miscarriage. It highlights the taboo of a dark reality. The painter’s self-portrait is also, and above all, the personification of Llorona (the weeper).

The tear shed on Frida’s cheek symbolises her. This Mexican myth embodies the role of the bad mother who fails to be a wife, and a mother figure. Just like Frida Kahlo, who gave birth to a foetus that will never be her child. The vaginal blood contrasting with the purity of hospital sheets broke the taboo of a deposed maternity. Certainly, this painting overcomes the denigration of pregnancy by medicine and society.

Henry Ford Hospital. Frida Kahlo, 1932
 Henry Ford Hospital. Frida Kahlo, 1932. Image source: Google Arts & Culture 

The choice of pregnancy or of abortion

This deployment of art in the service of the woman’s cause reached its peak in the context of the growing influence of feminist activism in the 1970s. The demand for free motherhood contrasted with the dominant ideology; pregnancy is the basis of female gender identity.

In fact, procreation has become conceptualized as slavery in the service of patriarchal society. From then on, the focus was the free disposal of the woman’s body. It led to demands for contraception and abortion. The struggle waged by the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF) was embodied in the control of fertility and the choice of motherhood. They constantly used the image of pregnancy to denounce the abuses imposed by society. Sexuality, maternity, domesticity, and femininity were, progressively, no longer associated. Thus, the challenge of activism lies in deconstructing pregnancy.

The image of this militant poster illustrates the battle aiming to obtain “free abortion and contraception”. The pregnant woman carries on her belly the men of the church, of justice, of medicine and of capitalism. The weight of society from which she now wishes to emancipate herself.

Poster of the Abortion Freedom Movement, 1972.
Poster of the Abortion Freedom Movement, 1972. Image source:


To conclude, the exploitation of the image of pregnancy through art has allowed us to observe its evolution in society. This anthropological look at the artistic representation of pregnancy has highlighted the instrumentalisation of the role of women. Although pregnancy is certainly valued in the context of our contemporary society, this has not been the case for many decades. Pregnancy was first seen as the embodiment of disobedience to God in the Christian era. Pregnant women represented what society feared; punishment and intimate actions. Their bodies thus carried the symbolism of defiance.

The growing appreciation for the birth of Jesus countered this trend. The artistic representation of Mary’s pregnancy was given greater prominence. From then on, pregnant women were represented in art during the Middle Ages. However, this sudden fascination with the object of birth was by no means widespread. The act of fertilisation was a taboo that society did not wish to see. It should be noted that the place of women in society has been obliterated. First as the daughters of their fathers, then as the wives of their husbands, women fulfill their social roles by becoming mothers of the children they bore. Childbirth, although absent in the artistic representations of the time, was the fulfilment of their social tasks.

Thus, the correlation between the evolution of women’s place in art and the consideration given to them in society has been established. If women, today, enjoy a certain autonomy, it is the fruit of struggles for societal, political and, above all, biological independence. The reappropriation of women’s bodies and the free use of contraceptives have enabled some women to no longer fulfil the many maternal obligations that were incumbent upon them.

The effective birth of humanity

This independence then gave free rein to a proliferation of artistic representations of pregnancy. Little by little, the taboos surrounding childbirth were broken. Nudity, miscarriage, pain, abortion, contraception and even adoption have a prominent place in the artistic representation of childbirth. The curves of a pregnant woman are highlighted. Modesty creeps into the self-portraits, photographs, and sculptures. Artists compose with the nudity of a body carrying life. And the ancient divine curse “You shall bear children in pain” fades away. The woman is no longer subject to an inexorable process. She now has control over her body as well as her pregnancy and can choose the way her delivery will be carried out.

Pregnant woman art model in museum by Ron Mueck.
Pregnant woman. Ron Mueck. Image source:

In this image, the imperfection of a body bearing life is celebrated. The nudity and real size of the sculpture are a tribute to motherhood and women in general. The vulnerability of a disempowered body conveys the profound humanity of the character of pregnancy.

In our contemporary society, the place allocated to women and their bodies is gradually gaining respect. It is no longer a matter of blind religious devotion, nor even of a shameful view of procreation. It is now a question of granting pregnant women a plural identity, which accepts imperfections and highlights their sexual, bodily, and societal liberation.

Works of art always try to understand and explain the origin of our civilization and its continuity. Therefore, the study of the evolution of artistic movements allows us to affirm that the woman’s body is indeed the one that gave birth to humanity.

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