Western Depictions of Motherhood from the Seventeeth to Nineteenth Centuries

HIPS Winter Quarter Final Presentation (pictured: King's College of London - site of oldest nursing school founded by Florence Nightingale) Anase Asom

The purpose of this presentation is to introduce the popular depictions of motherhood that were being created at the same time as the changes in midwifery were occurring. Representing a different, more idealist interpretation of motherhood, 18th and 19th century art sheds light on the contrasting perspectives surrounding this subject
By the 17th Century, the medicalization of childbirth was coming into existence. However, as represented by the male doctor in the painting, the humors were still the predominate means of medical analysis (he is analyzing her urine for a suspected baby). Western art of the 17th century focused on scenes depicting events of day-to-day life. Although van Mieris' pieces seemingly presents a dramatic representation of an expectant mother, his work, in addition to others during this time period, presents a more pragmatic representation of pregnancy during this time. This piece represents a woman who has fainted, potentially because she has discovered she is pregnant, as represented by the blue ribbon held by a woman in the background in the piece. Thus, van Meiris attempts to present a natural and realistic representation of what pregnancy is. However, the art of the 18th and 19th centuries, depicted a much more serene and positive correlation between women, pregnancy, and childbirth.
As presented by Fragonard's Rococo piece, only the joys of motherhood and womanhood centralize the female experience. Cleverly titled "The Joys of Motherhood," this piece underscores the sentiment of the Enlightenment period-motherhood was peaceful, joyful, and simple. This woman and her child are able to happily walk around in nature without shoes while wearing warm colors. They seem to look directly at the viewer to further underscore this sentiment.
By the turn of the 18th century, depictions of Western childbirth almost exclusively presented the aftermath. The new mother is shown as being active, wearing all white. Both of these elements would be uncharacteristic of post-labor process. In addition, many of these pieces would depict the wealth of many of these families through slight details in the image, such as the full table and the servant leaving the room. This is very uncharacteristic of the postmortum period. The servant/midwife would often stay with the mother and child for many days after the birth in order to allow the mother to recover. This husband would often not see the mother or the newborn until both were perfectly rested.
Elizabeth Brownrigg was a 18th century midwife famous for her trial and eventual hanging for the abuse of her servants. Her trial provided significant justification against female-midwives in the 19th century. This depiction presents the changing view towards childbirth by the 19th century. The realities of pregnancy and those associated with this natural process, such as midwives, were often characterized as evil. Though Elizabeth Brownrigg presents an outlier in this case, her depiction as an "eccentric character" underscores the reputation women in her position were receiving.
By the end of the 19th century, this reoccurring theme of joy and motherhood was still rampant in Western art. Here, Renoir focuses on a feeding baby in the arms of its mother. Using light pinks, blues, and cremes and having the mother look directly at the viewer, Renoir further underscores the theme of motherhood being a joyous event.
By the turn of the century, this joy and tranquillity was thus associated with motherhood and childbirth. A change in media, the photograph, was still able to depict this serenity as Käsebier had herself photographed as the Virgin Mary. This "ideal motherhood" was also represented by these all-white cloths as well as the line of sight hitting the newborn.
Even with the departure of classic midwifery by the end of the 19th century, nurses, such as the one pictured, played an integral role in the sphere of women's health. This changing world of women's health still relied on much of the expertise of educated female practitioners.
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