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Nan Goldin Rebecca at the Russian Baths NYC 1985
Nan Goldin, “Rebecca at the Russian baths, NYC”, (1985). Archival pigment printCopyright Nan Goldin. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris and London

7 artists who radically changed the way we document pregnancy

From Awol Erizku’s portraits of a heavily pregnant Beyoncé to Nan Goldin’s depictions of Downtown New York, and Alice Neel’s eroticised paintings

The exhibition Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media (24 January 2020 – 26 April 2020) is currently running at London’s Foundling Museum. Shining a light on predominantly male depictions of fertility and pregnancy throughout the centuries, to reveal how, before the twentieth century, artists concealed or relegated pregnancy to the feminine sphere.

Until reclamations of the female body during second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, honest representations of pregnancy were scarce in the visual arts. Art historians have mistakenly believed that paintings such as Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) represented pregnancy, but, in reality, it reflected European fashions – voluminous, billowing dresses. When artists did paint pregnant subjects, it was indicated by a woman’s hand resting over her abdomen, or rendered through idealised scenes. Due to the entrenched conflations of sex and sin in the Christian tradition, visual incarnations of the pregnant female body were somewhat of a taboo. We know male artists often omitted signs of pregnancy entirely, for example, Joshua Reynolds when painting the portrait of Theresa Parker in 1787.

Pregnancy is no longer a sacrosanct, concealed, or domesticated state of female existence, but an experience that ignites discussion and articulates the maternal experience; reconciling a woman’s sexual agency with her role as a conduit for human life. Here are some of the female artists who have contributed to radical visual constructions of female selfhood.


In contemporary society – coined by some sociologists as a ‘cult of domesticity’ – representations of pregnancy are found ubiquitously in media and popular culture. Channelling Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and Annie Leibovitz’s photograph of a seven-month pregnant Demi Moore, Beyoncé has established herself not only as the Queen of Pop but the reigning monarch of the pregnancy self-portrait. In 2017, her collaboration with artist Awol Erizku practically broke the internet, with her Instagram photograph breaking world-records for the most-liked post on the platform within eight hours. Overnight, Beyoncé set a new precedent for women finding empowerment through portraits of their pregnancy. 

Beyoncé’s and Erizku’s carefully orchestrated images played on centuries worth of art history, religious, and maternal symbolism. From depictions of the Madonna with child, to the idealised Renaissance paintings of goddesses.


One of the most important contributors to German expressionism, Paula Modersoh-Becker scandalised her contemporaries when she painted a series of nude self-portraits at the start of the twentieth century. In 1906, she married her artist husband, Otto Modersohn, and shortly after completed “Self-Portrait on the sixth wedding anniversary.” In 1907, after giving birth, due to the doctor’s recommendation that she remain bedridden for weeks after delivery, she died of a massive pulmonary embolism when finally allowed to stand – almost three weeks after giving birth.

Her astonishing nude pregnancy self-portrait is arguably her most important work – a radical visual record of motherhood, but also her own premature and tragic death. In reality, the work was created before she was pregnant, but the soft colour and subtle smile allude to the artist’s excitement and anticipation to become a mother.


American photographer and co-founder of the photography magazine Aperture, Barbara Morgan, was known for her candid photographs of modern dancers like Martha Graham from the 1930s onwards. In 1945, she took the photograph “Pregnant”, a corporeal, primordial, raw representation of maternity that controversially reflected the entirely nude female body. Aesthetically breathtaking, Morgan’s capturing of ‘motherhood’ prioritised the photograph’s formal composition before capturing the essence of pregnancy.

Originally trained as a painter, Morgan switched to photography after the birth of her children. “I realised that when I painted, I lost track of everything else. Something could happen to our children if I were totally involved with my painting. I knew that I must be a mother first, and therefore couldn’t have time to paint.”

Morgan set a new precedent for women artists and photography – a medium that could be appropriated by the working, yet an ambitious and artistic mother.


An expressionist American painter, Alice Neel painted subjects that reflected her ‘overwhelming interest in humanity.’ Developing her own distinctive style of portraiture, Neel captured the inner psychological states of her models with a refreshing realism and dynamic use of colour. While living in New York in the 1960s she began painting pregnant woman, during which time she created the work “Pregnant Maria” in 1964. 

Neel’s portrait depicts her subject reclining on a bed in the manner of Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” or Manet’s “Olympia” – paintings that shaped a historic canon of the idealised and sexualised female nude. Subverting the genre through the subject of pregnancy, Neel’s portrait remains highly erotic while demonstrating that her female subject is self-possessing, confident, and calm as she confronts the gaze of the viewer straight on. In this way, Neel brilliantly transgressed and parodied traditions of painting the nude female body in western art history.


Sally Mann is a renowned photographer who has become synonymous with the American South, but also her close-up, candid shots of human life, often women and children. Known for her unsettling portraits of rotting corpses, Mann’s lens doesn’t shy away from taboo topics.

Her work is a courageous confrontation of life and death, the cycles of human life, which situates motherhood at the crux of her practice. In the mid-1980s, she captured At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women, a series of black and white photographic portraits that acted as a study of girlhood. In one photograph, she captured a 12-year-old girl embracing her heavily pregnant mother in their backyard. The powerful image of female intimacy captures the unique relationship between mothers and daughters while presenting the physicality of pregnancy in an honest light – as uncomfortable, obtrusive, and burdensome.


Known as the most ‘uncompromisingly honest’ photographer, Nan Goldin’s work is a form of ‘social portraiture’ that rejects traditional approaches to the medium and reveals people existing on the razor edge of life – captured most famously in her 35mm format series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Described as a ‘downtown Opera’, Goldin’s series is comprised of 700 snapshot-like photographs of her experiences around New York, Berlin and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s.

By photographing during a new progressive era, Goldin sought out the profane, transgressive and hidden worlds of urban cities. She famously documented the New York’s drag queen community, drug abuse, as well as the Aids crisis that gripped much of North America in the late-1970s and 1980s.

Stripping away any remnants of idealised or sentimental motherhood, Goldin’s photograph Rebecca at the Russian bath presents a new kind of postmodern woman, whose pregnancy seems to merely be an ancillary factor in this young woman’s life, identity, and place in the world. Another subversion on the subject of fertility, Goldin’s shocking photograph “Ectopic pregnancy scar, New York City” (1980) showed the darker implications of female reproduction.


London-based painter Chantal Joffe masters the genre of sensual, personal portraiture, within which she accentuates the psychological, inner-world of her subjects. Featured in the Portraying Pregnancy exhibition at the Foundling Museum, Joffe is an exemplary artist to wholeheartedly embrace the themes of birthing, motherhood and womanhood – a result of her long-standing admiration for Paula Modersohn-Becker. 

Joffe painted “Self Portrait Pregnant II” during her pregnancy, after years of painting her friends pregnant. She once commented on this kind of portrait: “It’s visually fascinating – people pregnant are quite gripping as a subject because it’s so extreme. A tornado’s about to hit them but they’ve got this incredible calm sweetness.”