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Decoding Art References in BeyoncÉ’s Vogue Shoot
From the blue period to a flower crown...
Art Girls Jungle 12 Aug 2018

A few days is practically a lifetime in the news world, so by now you probably think you know all there is to know about Beyoncé’s September Vogue cover. Tyler Mitchell, first African American Vogue cover photographer; Beyoncé’s unprecedented as-told-to confessional; Gucci summer cruise dress. Headlines churned; history made. Done, done and done. Or is it?

At risk of redundancy, we’d like lay out a case for a closer look at this editorial. With Mitchell’s identity understandably the epicenter of the buzz around this story, the artistry of the pictures themselves has been overlooked, but pause on the page and you’ll see they sizzle with sultry summer decadence, a pulsing cornucopia of color, texture and light. They present the high priestess of pop in all her transcendence, capturing her divine aura and her humanity all in one frozen frame.

They’re also stuffed with symbolism that we traced back to traditional imagery from the art canon. Armed with our dusty old textbooks (alright, WikiArt and the MET digital catalog), we scraped the hallowed halls of history to bring you these visual echoes from the Vogue spread. Intentional, accidental or subliminal, there’s no denying these similarities.

1. Flower crowns? For fall? 


The stand-out shot is, of course, the cover, showing Beyoncé posed regally in the Gucci cruise collection wedding dress now famous for shattering conventions that covergirls must wear fall styles on the September cover.

David, A Vestal Virgin Crowned With Flowers, 1783

A little research reveals striking similarities to neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David’s A Vestal Virgin Crowned With Flowers, from the billowing white dress to the very flowers decorating the ladies’ heads—pink, white and peach roses. But in art as in life, appearances can be deceptive: despite the bridal trappings of both of these portraits, neither Bey nor the vestal virgin is actually alter-bound. Vestal virgins were ancient Roman priestesses sworn to Vesta, goddess of the hearth, and their most sacred duty was to guard her sacred fire and keep it from extinguishing. With so much riding on their constant vigilance, sex was off the table for these ladies, who were bound to chastity for life.

None of this might seem to resonate with the bootylicious Beyoncé, but there might be something to it: the vestal virgins were considered indispensible for the wellbeing of Rome, much like Beyoncé is the backbone of a certain strata of pop culture, the linchpin of the elite untouchables of modern celebrity. In essence, Beyoncé can do no wrong. And if there is such as a thing as the Illuminati, we all know who calls the shots… Run the World (Girls), need we say more?

2. Flora and FUPA 


Bey wears an entire garden on her head in this shot, forcing us to dig into the symbol we neatly dodged in the last shot: the flower crown. Long before it was coopted by Pinterest brides and Coachella thots, the flower crown was a fixture of many of the major traditions of the classical world. Many gods and goddesses were known by their flowers (like Daphne, the lovely nymph who turned into a laurel tree to escape a very horny Apollo); victorious athletes and military heroes adorned their heads with wreathes; religious festivalgoers wouldn’t be caught outside the house without the requisite floral headwear. And long before Whole Foods tempted us with overpriced herbal supplements at the checkout, boozy aristocrats at Dionysian soirées wrapped their heads with flowers in a naïve attempt to escape the one party favor you never wake up without: a soul-crushing, gut-heaving hangover.

, Botticelli (1482).

Flower crowns abound in classical sculpture and pottery, but the closest reference to Mitchell’s shot actually dates back to the Renaissance: Botticelli’s Primavera. The rich greens and pinks saturating both images summon an unmistakable springtime mood, but it’s Botticelli’s Flora that really ties these two works together. Prancing through the right side of the canvas in her flower crown, the goddess of springtime even cups her arms around her belly in a little nod to Beyoncé’s shout-out to her FUPA. A total coincidence, perhaps, but the kind we live for.

Close-up of Primavea, Botticelli (1482). 

3. Et tu, Bey? 


The classical mood continues as Beyoncé channels her inner Caesar in front of a kitschy, Hellenic backdrop, draped in front of what looks like it could be a piece of some authentic ruins. We could delve into some long-winded musings about the inherent artifice of celebrity (and magazines, for that matter) but we’ll spare you the hubris and go straight to the source.

Terracotta plaque
, c. 450 BC, Greek/Melian (Odysseus returns to his wife and son, Penelope and Telemachos)

Visually, this fifth century BC Greek terracotta plaque clearly mimics the backdrop of Mitchell’s shot, but the story is what makes it worth your time. The plaque shows ancient hero Odysseus at the denouement of his decade of of wandering, at the moment when he has just returned home to his wife and son but has yet to reveal his identity to them. We catch him in a suspended flash between two modes of being—stranger and husband, wanderer and family man. Likewise, Mitchell’s shots of Beyoncé capture the uneasy strain of unresolved dualism: they combine classical references with a nod to Caribbean history with the cornrows, and the Wales Bonner suit introduces an air of stately masculinity into the otherwise very femininely styled story.

4. All that glitters  


Goddess vibes are still going strong in this gold-tinted shot, but Beyoncé’s posture and the picture’s composition and hue call to mind the society lady in Fragonard’s famous rococo canvas, The Love Letter. Even Bey’s gaze mimics the amorous aristocrat—both women seem to look not at us but through us, lost in their own secret world that we can only dream of peeking into (personally, I would trade a kidney for a copy of one of Beyoncé’s love letters with Jay-Z).

The Love Letter
, Jean Honoré Fragonard, early 1770s

T Thomas Wilmer Dewing’s The Evening Dress is the other unmistakable likeness with its soft, shimmering golden dress draped divinely over the lady’s graceful curves. In 1902, a critic made a shrewd note about Dewing’s women that rings surprisingly true for our Vogue covergirl more than a century later: “They all have a dream-like tendency, and though absolutely modern, are sometimes quite different from what we generally understand by modern women.” That is to say, like any great cultural icon, Beyoncé is timeless.

The Evening Dress
, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, before 1926.

5. The Blue Period 


This stunning blue on blue shot is basically a Godard wet dream meets Côte d’Azur meets 80s disco fashion meets mid-century Italian country kitsch, but that’s not even the best part. Let’s set aside the goddesses for a hot sec and talk about Madonna—not that Madonna, sorry. With the blue drape dominating the scene so conspicuously, we couldn’t help but conjure up the Virgin Mary, traditionally shown wearing blue robes because of the color’s Old Testament significance. With the Biblical tone set, it’s only fitting that this shot visually recalls Faith personified, as dreamed up by Ingres for the window of the Chapel of Saint Ferdinand.

Cardboard for the window of the Chapel of St. Ferdinand: Faith (Carton pour les Vitraux de la chapelle Saint Ferdinand: la Foi), Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1842

Grande Odalisque
, Ingres, 1814

But if there’s one generalization that holds for all of art history, it’s that where there’s a Madonna, there’s usually a whore somewhere close by, so it should come as no surprise that Ingres’ most famous painting is the sultry Grand Odalisque, the pinnacle of Victorian Europe’s unfortunate Orientalism fetish. The turquoise sheet draped behind Beyoncé serves the very important function of making that Gucci dress pop like no other, but its color and swirly pattern also echoes the peacock-blue drapes framing Ingres’ temptress. These two female images of faith and carnality might have looked like a gross inconsistency in Ingres’ time, but today the duality is perfect to capture Beyoncé’s double-edged sword of female power. Heaven and earth, spirituality and carnality, and even Madonna and whore all blend together to create the wonderful creature that is a woman.

6. Out of Africa 


It’s time to flip the textbook forward some hundred years, because Beyoncé’s alternate cover has clear visual and symbolic ties to Ethiopian political art.

Afewerk Telke, The Victory of Ethiopia (Central Panel – Through Our United Efforts We Shall Protect the Unity and Territorial Integrity of Ethiopia) 

Meet Afewerk Telke, miner-turned-artist committed to using his creativity to inspire positive change in his country and in the world. Telke once remarked, “What we do today must reflect today’s life for tomorrow’s generation and pave the way for the future generation”—echoing Beyoncé’s heartfelt wishes for her children to grow up free from her ancestral baggage.

Just as Telke’s The Victory of Ethiopia expresses his dreams for his country, Beyoncé radiates hope in Mitchell’s stunning shot. Waving a white sheet above her head, she transfigures the traumatic ancestry she mentions in the article—she comes from a lineage of slaves and slave owners—by setting this symbol of forced domestic labor free to billow in the wind, a sail to propel her towards a brighter future, or a white flag to wave at her ghosts. Like the woman of Telke’s canvas, she is a benevolent apparition of unity (the red, green, black and yellow of her Alexander McQueen dress references the Pan-African flag).

7. A Vision in White 


Compared to some of the more charged shots, this picture of Beyoncé gazing stoically off into the distance is serene, pastoral even. Even the quality of the image is soft and hazy—note that it’s the only picture in the story shot in landscape—conjuring up an air of rural charm with a tinge of mystery (what’s under that long Gucci train? My bet is on candy-colored petit fours and someone’s grandmother’s silver tea set).

That’s why dreamy impressionist scenes jump to mind as the most apt comparison. Mitchell invites us to escape the charged symbolism of the rest of the story into a wonderland of dappled sunlight, parasols and white picnic blankets, straight outta Monet.

Jeanne-Marguerite Lecadre in the Garden,
Claude Monet, 1866

Lunch on the Grass (central panel)
, Claude Monet, 1856

8. Hold Me Closer 


The impressionist motif continues with Bey’s moody dancer chic moment by Dior. With tulle for days, the skirt begs comparison with Degas’ signature ballerina paintings. No deep analysis here—just feast your eyes on the painterly charm of these pictures.

Edward Degas, Seated Dancer, 1883

9) A Seat at the Table 


The womanspreading, the confrontational gaze, the pattern-on-pattern motif and even the shape of the sleeves in this picture recall Malian photographer Seydou Keïta’s shot of an unidentified woman in a chair. Both artistic and sociological, he recorded the faces of Mali between the 1940s and 1960s before gaining international recognition towards the end of his career—and his life. Though one remains shrouded in anonymity while the other is recognized in every corner of the world, the women of these two portraits clearly have something deeper in common, something that both photographers were able to capture. One look into their eyes reveals a caliber of self-possession that many aspire to but few can achieve—but if these shots of Beyoncé should inspire us to do anything, it’s to keep reaching for ever-higher heights, in art and in life.

Working Title/Artist: Seydou Keita, [woman seated chair] Department: AAOA Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 11 Working Date: photography by mma, DT5405.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 8_19_08
Untitled, #313 [Woman Seated on Chair]
, Seydou Keïta, 1956-57.

Text by Katya Lopatko 
Photos via beyonce, rosecolored_dreams, WikiArt, Pinterest, walesbonner,c hun.lae, MET, voguemagazine, tangino, treatment28

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