Educational exposure of ideas, assumptions or hypotheses, based on proven facts" (which need not be strictly current affairs) Value in judgments are excluded, and the text comes close to an opinion article, without judging or making forecasts , just formulating hypotheses, giving motivated explanations and bringing together a variety of data

Beyoncé on horseback: The artistic relationship between Queen Isabella and the (new) queen of country music

The cover image of the artist’s new album, ‘Cowboy Carter,’ has clear references to African-American culture but also to the tradition of Velázquez’s equestrian portraits

Act ll: Cowboy Carter
The cover image of Beyoncé's 'Act II: Cowboy Carter.'Parkwood/ Columbia/ Sony/ AP/ Laprese
Ana Marcos

Right at Easter, Beyoncé released her new album Cowboy Carter. The Texas-born African American artist appears dressed as a cowgirl, with a band across her chest that reads the name of the album, a white hat and white high-heeled boots. She is on a white horse, holding the bridle with only one hand because in the other she is carrying a U.S. flag. It is not clear where the animal’s mane begins and where the singer’s white mane flowing in the wind ends. With this album and this image, Beyoncé confirms her entry into country music and vindicates a musical genre that was appropriated by whites even though, as we have been reminded recently, it originated in black communities.

The first strictly artistic reference is found in the horse. The animal is suspended, running or trotting. From there, we assume the movement of Beyoncé's mane, in front of her regal, unperturbed gaze. A few minutes after the artist posted the photo on her Instagram account, the first theory that began to circulate was that there’s a clear reference to the piece The Horse in Motion by Anglo-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge; in the nineteenth century, as the first to record moving images of living beings, he proved that horses could fly.

Muybridge put a black rider on the horse, which has been a resource for African American artists. In the film Nope! (2022) the strange events coming from the sky occur at an old Hollywood movie horse ranch run by a family of black cowboys. Here the reference is also clear. As Elsa Fernández-Santos said in her review of the film: “Although no one remembers his name, the black man was already there, galloping toward nothingness, before anyone else.” In this case, a black woman is remembering him.

Eadweard J. Muybridge
'Animal Locomotion' by Eadweard J. Muybridge (American, born England, 1830 - 1904); 1887; Collotype; 23.8 x 30.8 cm (9 3/8 x 12 1/8 in.); 84.XM.628.38.Alamy Stock Photo

The press and social media have always analyzed Beyoncé's decision to get on a horse dressed as a cowgirl from the perspective of, let’s say, Americanism. That is to say, the cover’s every layer of meaning has been read in terms of how the artist vindicates Afro-American culture at this political/electoral juncture, amid Donald Trump’s possible return to power and the criticism the singer has received for wading into country. That’s on top of the eternal condemnation that haunts women: putting Beyoncé in competition with Taylor Swift for the pop music crown, if not for the title of America’s sweetheart.

I remembered Diego Velázquez’s equestrian portraits. Looking at the Prado Museum’s website, I found a lecture by Gloria Martínez Neiva, a PhD in Art History from the Complutense University of Madrid; she spoke about Mariana of Neoburg, Queen of Spain for 50 years. In addition to recalling this sovereign, Martínez Neiva listed a few characteristics about this type of composition. Martinez focused on the works of Luca Giordano, but as she noted, it is impossible to talk about women on horseback without mentioning Velázquez.

Gloria Martínez Neiva explains that portraits of this variety, regardless of whether they were of men or women, used to symbolize monarchs’ entry into the cities and their arrival in their new kingdoms. “The idea was to create a victorious, triumphant image that could be spread easily across kingdoms,” said the expert. Beyoncé is sending the same message: she is going to occupy country’s throne, if only temporarily, for as long as it takes her to reclaim Afro culture.

Beyoncé: Texas Hold'em
The image for Beyoncé's singles: 'Texas Hold'em' and '16 Carriages'.Sony Music

Cowboy Carter is the second installment of a three-act mega-project to explore how black culture has nurtured popular music. The first one was released in 2022 and called Renaissance; it was devoted to the influence of the black community (especially LGBTQ members) on disco music. The third one will be released in a few years.

This is how the singer explained Act II: My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant…This album has been over five years in the making. It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t. But, because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive.”

According to the academic, such equestrian portraits used to be reserved for monarchs and their closest followers to “differentiate themselves from the rest of the nobility and the bourgeoisie.” In other words, they represent a class symbol that also sent another message: “We can afford this type of painting.” For years, Beyoncé has been clinging to a throne that every now and then she must share it with Madonna, Taylor Swift, Britney Spears?

The Spanish monarchy commissioned such portraits during periods of crisis to try to shore up its dominance. After all, getting on a horse was the best way to represent power and victory. It was a propagandistic move as well. Beyoncé just finished a huge and successful world tour. It is difficult to use the term crisis in reference to this international star. But according to her explanation prior to the release of the album, she has been questioned: “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.”

Diego de Velázquez’s ‘Equestrian Portrait of Elisabeth of France.’
Diego de Velázquez’s ‘Equestrian Portrait of Elisabeth of France.’ MUSEO DEL PRADO

At the last Grammy Awards, Rapper Jay Z, Beyoncé's husband, vindicated the singer in a tirade against the very Academy that has made the artist the most awarded in the history of these awards. “She has more Grammys than everyone and never won Album of the Year. So even by your own metrics that doesn’t work. Think about that. The most Grammys, never won Album of the Year. That doesn’t work…Some of you may feel like you were robbed … Some of you don’t belong in the category,” he said, standing next to his eldest daughter Blue Ivy, in front of Beyoncé, who listened impassively from the audience, wearing an expression similar to the one she has on the horse.

Martinez Neiva gave a final note on the meaning of equestrian portraits. This way of representing power through art goes back, according to Martínez Neiva’s studies, to the days of the Roman Empire: “The emperor was a moral archetype.” There is something of that in Beyoncé: a black woman who is recovering appropriated music for her community, who clings to the flag that in the United States belongs less and less to everyone and more to a few on the Right. Country, patriotism, nationalism, race, heritage, culture... all in a single image.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS