Are you a Peeping Tom? John Collier, Lady Godiva, c. 1897
Should we be looking at this nude woman as she rides by on her lavishly dressed horse, head bowed, and holding her long hair across her chest? Art, of course, is meant to be looked at, to be enjoyed, but this woman’s story suggests otherwise.
She’s Lady Godiva, who according to legend lived in Coventry, England, in the 11th century. The heavy taxes levied by her husband, Leofric, Early of Mercia, led to protests among the townspeople. Godiva pleaded with him to lift the burden, and he promised to if she would ride through the town nude. He probably thought the request was so outlandish that she’d never do it, but her desire to see justice for the people prevailed. Not wanting to expose herself, she ordered that the citizens stay shut up in their houses and not look.
The part of this story that has endured the longest in popular memory is the legend of the one person who looked, Peeping Tom, a term we still use today to refer to someone looking without permission.
This painting puts us, the viewers, in a strange position then: if we enjoy the sight of Godiva on the horse, are we the one who disobeyed? Was Godiva unreasonable to think she could control the people of her city even as she fought for them? Putting this painting in art historical context, what might it mean that this legend was at its most popular in 19th century Victorian England, with versions by John Collier, Edwin Henry Landseer, George Frederic Watts, and Alfred Woolmer?
(For other depictions, see: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/view_as/grid/search/keyword:godiva-herbert#)
Marsely Kehoe earned her doctorate in Art History at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Art History and Foreign Languages at Kenyon College. Her specialty is Early Modern Dutch Art, with a focus on the Dutch colonial empire in Asia and the Caribbean. Find this other Dr. Kehoe on Twitter @marselykehoe