There is a time and place for art historians to bring their expertise to bear on contemporary issues — like when TikToker and art historian Mary McGillivray mapped angles and visual geometry to debunk the Eurovision cocaine controversy. And there is also a time and place in which tying everything, however weakly, to Western art history is a bit of a stretch — and that time and place may be here and now, as the Internet attempts to draw a comparison between the cover image of Beyoncé’s new album, Renaissance, and John Collier’s circa 1898 painting “Lady Godiva.”
In all fairness, the radical spirit and moral strength channeled by Lady Godiva resonate with the lyrics of Beyoncé’s single released in advance of the album, “Break My Soul.” According to the legendary story, the 11th-century gentlewoman rode naked through the Coventry marketplace on a bet with her husband, who said if she did so, he would reduce an oppressive tax on their people. In Beyoncé’s song, interpreted by some as an anti-capitalist anthem, the musician belts out, “And I just quit my job / I’m gonna find new drive / Damn, they work me so damn hard / Work by nine, then off past five” before repeating the chorus: “You won’t break my soul.”
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But Collier’s particular interpretation of the legend has no resemblance to the newly unveiled album cover. The bearing of Lady Godiva in Collier’s painting is downcast and self-conscious, having nothing in common with Beyoncé’s calm, self-assured, direct-to-camera stare. She seems frankly unconcerned about everything, up to and including your taxes.
You could say the images are visually similar, in the sense that they both feature a fairly naked woman on a horse. But even a cursory Internet search for “woman naked on a horse” reveals that Collier’s artwork is not the only or even the best referent for the image. In fact, Carlijn Jacobs — the photographer who shot the cover art for Beyoncé — has invoked the trope before. And others have pointed to Bianca Jagger’s memorable entrance on horseback to Studio 54 in 1977.
And one Twitter user also observed that it is not uncommon for Beyoncé to appear riding horses in photos and videos, a theme they described as an invocation of her Texan roots.
Since “Lady Godiva” is not a Renaissance painting, there is not even a tenuous connection to be made to the title of Beyoncé’s album, Renaissance — and given Beyoncé’s explicit commitment to Black feminism, a more convincing reference would be the Harlem Renaissance, anyway. That didn’t stop some people from continuing to liken it to a thing a Western White painter did 100 years ago — and it also didn’t stop other people on Twitter from mocking them for it.
As far as what Queen Bey has to say on the matter, the Instagram post presenting the cover as a teaser for the July 29 album drop says, “My intention was to create a safe place, a place without judgment. A place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom.”
The real moral here is that not everything is about Western art — as takes on the connection between imagery in Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade and African art makes clear. And when it comes to Beyoncé, it’s reductionist to look to a narrow art historical canon.