prehistoric art

Pregnancy in Western Art

Earlier this week, I was researching something on Barbara Kruger when I happened upon some posters that she made in 1991 for bus shelters, as part of a project created through the Public Arts Fund. These posters, which had the word “HELP!” superimposed over the picture of a man, used smaller blurbs of text to draw attention to issues that people might face when they become pregnant. To me, Kruger is pointing out that any difficulties surrounding pregnancy should not be merely perceived as a “woman’s problem,” but a situation which affects both genders. These posters are discussed elsewhere in relation to social responsibility and abortion, which I think also is appropriate.

Barbara Kruger, poster from "HELP!" series, 1991


In this instance, I think Kruger’s depiction of a male, while addressing the topic of pregnancy, is entirely appropriate. However, these posters also made me pause and think about how there are comparatively few representations of pregnant women in the Western canon as a whole, especially, say, in contrast with the popularity of the idealized female nude. The topics of pregnancy and childbirth are found in the narratives and historical circumstances surrounding works of art (I’m particularly thinking of Christian scenes of the Visitation and Nativity), but many of those works of art do not highlight the pregnant or postpartum female body. I suppose on one hand, this makes sense, because the pregnant form was not part of the idealized form found in classical art (which is a primary foundation for the Western canon). I thought I would compile a few images of pregnant women in this post — either well-known objects or obscure ones made by a well-known Western artist — as a starting point to think about this topic:

The so-called "Venus of Willendorf" (also 'Woman of Willendorf), ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE. Oolitic limestone, 4.25" inches (10.8 cm)

I thought the Venus of Willendorf would be a good place to start this compilation, particularly due to relatively recent findings by McCoid and McDermott that this statuette and other Paleolithic “Venus” figurines are representations of pregnant women. It is thought that these statues may have been made by prehistoric women who were looking down at their own bodies, which could explain for some of the extreme exaggerations of the body and the lack of feet.1

Rogier van der Weyden, Visitation, c. 1445. Oil on oak panel, 57 x 36 cm.

I like this Northern Renaissance example of the Visitation (see above), because Elizabeth and Mary are not only decidedly pregnant, but they are laying their hands on each other’s bellies (which visually draws attention to their pregnant forms).

Rubens, detail of Visitation from Descent of the Cross, 1612-1614

Perhaps the Northern tradition of painting (with its keen interest in Aristotelian, empirical observation) caused artists like van der Weyden and Rubens to depict the pregnant form more clearly. In Rubens’s “Visitation” scene, Mary is decidedly pregnant. (It is hard to tell whether Elizabeth is pregnant, due to her placement and dark clothing, however.) I also wonder if Rubens, who had a preference for depicting the curvaceous female form, might have visually been drawn to the curves of the pregnant belly in this instance.

Raphael, "Portrait of a Woman" ("La Donna Gravida"), 1505-06. Oil on panel, 66 x 52 cm

I haven’t come across many images of Southern (especially Italian) artists who painted the pregnant female form, but I do like “La Donna Gravida” by Raphael. I especially like how the sitter also draws attention to her pregnant belly with her hand.

Georges de la Tour, "Woman Catching Fleas," 1630s. Oil on canvas

This painting by Georges de la Tour depicts a woman who is crushing a flea between her fingers. The seemingly everyday subject matter probably has deeper symbolic meaning, however. It has been suggested that this is a depiction of the Virgin (perhaps isolated after Joseph discovers she is pregnant), with the candle representing Christ as the Light of the World.

If we jump to the contemporary art scene, there are some images of pregnant women that exist. It makes sense that more pregnant forms would pop up in the postmodern era, since artists are questioning and drawing awareness to traditional Western standards. I think that Ron Mueck’s hyperrealistic Pregnant Woman is probably the best image that highlights and respects the pregnant form. Mueck studied a pregnant model, starting in the sixth month of her pregnancy until about the time that she gave birth. Mueck also studied anatomical books and drawings diligently while creating this sculpture, in order to achieve accuracy.

Ron Mueck, Pregnant Woman, 2002

I really like art historian Mary Kisler’s discussion of this piece, who mentions how this sculpture, in a public environment, has parallels with how a pregnant woman’s body becomes public in actuality. To prove her point, Kisler discusses how people (even strangers!) will sometimes touch the belly of a pregnant woman, when the non-pregnant female has stricter, more private boundaries.

I have to admit, apart from Mueck’s work, I’m not entirely smitten with several of the other contemporary representations of pregnant women. For example, consider this monumental statue by Marc Quinn:

Marc Quinn, "Alison Lapper Pregnant," 2005, 12 feet (3.6 m) high. Photo courtesy of Garry Knight via Flickr under Creative Commons license.*

This sculpture by Marc Quinn was placed in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It depicts the artist Alison Lapper, who was born without arms, when she was eight months pregnant. On one hand, I like that Quinn is trying to deconstruct Western notions of beauty by depicting a figure who is different from Western ideals. So, in that sense, I think that this sculpture is empowering to women, pregnant women, and any figure type which traditionally has been excluded from canonical standards. On the other hand, though, I feel like Quinn is using the pregnant form to get his point across – almost as if the pregnancy itself is a mere device for “shock value.” In this sense, I have a hard time viewing this sculpture as a pure celebration of the pregnant female form.

I also feel the same way about Damien Hirst’s sculpture, Verity, which is a variant of earlier works of art by Hirst (like The Virgin Mother). One half of the statue shows the exterior of the pregnant woman, while the other half shows the internal organs and matter inside the woman, including the fetus.

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012. Approximately 65-feet tall (20 m)

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012, detail

Verity is a monumental statue which is placed on the pier of Ilfracombe, Devon. Hirst, who lives in Ilfracombe, has loaned the sculpture to the town for twenty years (beginning in 2012). Hirst views his sculpture as an allegory for truth and justice, and I think that meaning is made clear with the revealed anatomy on one side. However, like with the Quinn sculpture, I feel like this sculpture is using the pregnant form to generate “shock value,” rather than for concrete symbolism or celebration of the pregnant form itself. It seems like the reference to truth and justice are best expressed in the sword and scales; I can’t see Hirst’s immediate connection between pregnancy and truth or justice. (If anyone can make that direct connection, please share!)

Do you have a favorite representation of the pregnant form in art? Any further thoughts as to why the pregnant form is comparatively scarce in Western art as a whole, apart from what I have put forward about idealized figures?

1 McCoid and McDermott, “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female
Vision in the Upper Paleolithic,” in American Anthropologist 98 (no. 2): 319-

*See Creative Commons license for photograph by Garry Knight


Excavation Sites for Prehistoric and Ancient Female Figurines

Various (mostly) prehistoric “Venus” figurines. (1) Willendorf’s Venus (Rhine/Danube), (2) Lespugue Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (3) Laussel Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (4) Dolní Věstonice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (5) Gagarino no. 4 Venus (Russia), (6) Moravany Venus (Rhine/Danube), (7) Kostenki 1. Statuette no. 3 (Russia), (8) Grimaldi nVenus (Italy), (9) Chiozza di Scandiano Venus (Italy), (10) Petrkovice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (11) Modern sculpture (N. America), (12) Eleesivitchi Venus (Russia); (13) Savignano Venus (Italy), (14) The so-called “Brassempouy Venus” (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (15) Hohle Fels Venus (SW Germany). Image from article, “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?” by Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson (2011).

Yesterday I had a student ask about the excavation sites for so-called “Venus” figurines from the Paleolithic period. This student wondered if the physical location of the site (or the other objects excavated at the sites) could give us more understanding about how the “Venus” figurines originally functioned. I thought this was a great question. Although I knew that some figurines were found in caves or domestic sites, I thought that I would find more information about the specifics regarding the excavation sites and findings.

I didn’t find nearly as much information as I had hoped (there may be more information hidden away in technical archaeology journals), but I did pull together a few interesting finds. It is interesting to see how several figurines are associated with domestic sites or found alongside animal bones. Would these bones have been food for these people or sacrifices for religious rituals? Perhaps both? Other female figurines are found in caves, sometimes with other objects and animal bones, too.

I know that the following list isn’t comprehensive by any means. (I also threw a Neolithic and a Minoan female figurine in the list, just to make things fun.) I plan on adding to this list as I come across new information and findings. If you want to add a another figurine to the list, or more details regarding the excavation of these figurines, feel free to leave a comment!

Photograph of the Hohle Fels Cave. Red arrow indicates where the “Venus” of Hohle Fels was discovered in September 2008.

  • Venus of Hohle Fels (at least 35,000 BCE) : Excavated in September 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany (see image above). The figurine, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in six fragments. A flute was also discovered at this site, which currently is the oldest known instrument in the world.
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 − 25,000 BCE): Discovered in 1925 in a layer of ash. The figurine was broken into two pieces. Figures of animals, as well as 2,000 balls of burnt clay, have been found at the Dolni Vestonice site. The majority of these finds were located at the dugout of central fire pit at the site.
  • Venus of Laussel (20,000 − 18,000 BCE): Discovered in 1911 by physician J. G. Lalanne. The figure is found in a rock shelter, carved onto a piece of fallen limestone.
  • Venus of Willendorf (28,000 − 25,000 BCE): Excavated in 1908 by Josef Szombathy in a loess deposit (fine-grained material that has been transported by the wind). More technical information about the excavation and layer deposit is found here.
  • “Venus II” from Willendorf (see suggested reconstruction here): Discovered in 1926 by Joseph Bayer. This figurine was found in a pit, lying on top of the jaw of a mammoth. This figurine is probably older than the “Venus of Willendorf.” The deep pit where “Venus II” was found went from level nine to level five. The original “Venus” of Willendorf was excavated at level nine.
  • Venus of Lespugue (24,000 − 22, 000 BCE): Discovered in the cave of Lespugue in 1922.
  • Gagarino Venus (c. 20,000 − 1,700 BCE): Excavated between 1926-1929. These figures were found in a house pit. The walls of the pit were lined with rhinocerous and mammoth bones.
  • Kostenki Venus (23,000-21,000 BCE): This term is actually a misnomer (beyond the already-problematic nickname of “Venus”) since there was a group of “Venuses” discovered at this site. The most famous one, however, is an mammoth-bone statuette discovered in 1957 by Zoya A. Abramova. Kostenki refers to 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in Ukraine.
  • Minoan “Snake Goddess” (c. 1600 BCE): Discovered in 1903 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. One of the “snake goddess” figurines was located at the “palace” of Knossos in a cist (repository) on the floor of a small room (near the “Throne Room” and “Room of the Charior Tables”). Sir Arthur Evans believed that this snake goddess (and the other objects found in the cist) formed part of a cult shrine. Evans identified the figurine traditionally identified as a “Snake Goddess” in art history textbooks as a votary of the snake goddess.

Glowing Prehistoric Horns

It’s always interesting to see what knowledge spews from the depths of my brain during lecture. Yesterday, while lecturing on cave paintings, I found myself telling the class about a theory I hadn’t thought about for years.

Back when I was an undergraduate, one of my professors explained a theory about why bulls were important to the prehistoric people (and they were obviously important, since bulls are depicted in so many prehistoric caves. This example on the left comes from Lascaux Cave in France (c. 15,000 BCE)).

The theory presented by my professor revolves around the St. Elmo’s Fire phenomenon. Basically, sometimes during electrical weather storms (i.e. storms with thunder and lightning), the tip of a bull’s horns can have a soft glow. The glow often is accompanied with a hissing or crackling sound.

It is thought that this phenomenon would have impressed prehistoric people, which may account for the supposed veneration of the bull. It could have been seen as a mystical creature with supernatural powers, since its horns had the ability to glow.


Judy Chicago’s "Venus"

I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’ve been researching prehistoric female figurines lately, huh?  I promise this will be my last post on the subject, at least for a while!  I just wanted to show everyone this cool Judy Chicago piece, Ceramic Goddess #3 (Study for Goddess Figurine on Fertile Goddess runner; 1977, shown above).  Pretty fun, huh?  It’s funky, playful shape makes me think that this could have been the prehistoric statuette from Lewis Carroll’s fictive “Wonderland.”  Yep, that’s it: this is the Venus of Wonderland.

The shape also reminds me a little bit of Henry Moore‘s anthropomorphic style.  (And speaking of Henry Moore, I’ve been thinking about how the replica of the prehistoric figurine “Venus de Lespugue” also reminds me Moore’s work.)

Anyhow, it’s neat to look at Chicago’s work and see how a 20th century feminist identified with the prehistoric figurines.  Although today some question the prehistoric “goddess” theory, it’s interesting to think about how feminist activists latched onto this subject matter in the 1970s and 1980s.  (You may be familiar with Judy Chicago’s well-known feminist work, The Dinner Party (1974-79)).  You can read more about this female figurine and Judy Chicago here.

Comments Off

Venus Impudique and Pudica

So many prehistoric statuettes are nicknamed “Venus” (the most popular being the “Venus of Willendorf“) that I’ve never given much thought to that title.  I guess that assumed that it was a cute reference to the fact that the statuettes were female. I recently learned, however, that the name “Venus” was first used as a tongue-in-cheek comment.  In 1864, the Marquis Paul de Vibraye wittily described a paleolithic ivory statuette of a female figure (shown right, c. 14,000 BC, from Laugerie-Basse, Vezerey in Dordogne) as a Venus impudique” (“immodest Venus”).  Paul de Vibraye chose the title “Venus impudique” to suggest that the prehistoric statuette makes no attempt to hide her sexuality, in contrast to the popular convention of the “Venus pudica” (modest Venus), which shows the goddess of love attempting to conceal her breasts and pubic area.

There are many versions of the “Venus pudica,” most notably the Venus de Medici (shown left, 1st century B.C. copy) and Praxiteles’ Venus of Knidos (original of c.350-340 BC).  If you are interested, you can read more about the Venus pudica convention here, and see even more examples here.

It’s interesting to think about how the nickname “Venus” has affected the perception of prehistoric statuettes like the Venus of Willendorf.  Christopher L. C. E. Whitcombe explains several ways that perception is altered in this short essay, and I wanted to mention two them here:

  • The “Venus” title encourages people to compare prehistoric art to the artistic standards and ideals that were upheld in Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art.  Since these artistic ideals were (and are) so highly valued in Western society, the “Venus” statues are judged by their factors of being “different” from these ideals (instead of being examined on their own terms).
  • The term “Venus” also calls for a comparison between prehistoric and Greek culture.  When such a comparison is made, the prehistoric art becomes more “primal” and sexually unrestrained, since the Greek art suggests self-awareness and “civilized” conventions of propriety.  Obviously, such a comparison is dangerous, since it suggests certain things about prehistoric life which cannot be proven. 

Can you think of more reasons why “Venus” is a problematic nickname to use?  Do you have a favorite “Venus” statuette?


Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Email *



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.