I have been intrigued by the portraits of pregnant women, such as the ones painted by Marcus Gheeraerts. Pregnancy is nowadays a much more private affair, but the wonder of new life has hopefully not changed. There is a stunning portrait of an unknown lady by Gheeraerts in which her face is depicted as pale as the hundreds of beautiful pearls sewn onto her gown. She wears a friendly smile and her hands rest on her pregnant belly, a very familiar pose to pregnant women. Her spectacular dress is decorated with hundreds of pearls, sewn on in a swirling pattern of snakes, ladybirds and leaves. Her dress is made from a brocade silver-grey silk. 

Left: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portrait of an Unknown Lady, oil on wood, 1595. © Tate Gallery, London. Right: Sophie Ploeg, The Long Wait, oil on linen, 2014.

Inspired by such a dazzling display I decided to bring it into our own time. I portrayed a heavily pregnant friend wearing a modern top of her choice. She is the 21st century woman, but she is as timeless as human kind itself in her pregnant state. Her skirt is a copy of the gown of our unknown 17th century lady. For this I copied the pattern from Gheeraerts’ painting, transferred it onto some silver-grey taffeta silk and applied the pearls.  I could then paint my model wearing the skirt.  

The lace pattern in the background is taken from an allegedly 16th century piece of lace held at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It is said to have been worked on by Anne Boleyn during her pregnancy and used during Elizabeth I’s christening. The piece was purchased by Emma Dent who collected most of the lace at Sudeley Castle in the late 19th century. There is no real provenance for the piece, just the diary entries from Emma Dent, in which she states she bought the piece in 1878 from descendants of Catherine Parr and it had the story attached that it had belonged to Anne Boleyn.  It has since simply always been known as a “canopy” made for Elizabeth I as a baby. That is the reason I have included it in my painting, as the associations with it are and have always been, pregnancy,  new life, and motherhood.

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About the author

Sophie is an artist, art historian, tutor, author and blogger. She writes on oil and pastel painting, art history and the life of an artist. She paints portraits and still life and specialises in painting drapery and lace.

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