56. ARTHUR BOYD
During his long and prestigious career, Arthur Boyd depicted subjects ranging from sparse, yet elegant landscapes to intensely allegorical pictures overflowing with imagery.
His prodigious talents, which extended across a broad range of media, including painting in oil and tempera, printmaking, sculpture and ceramics, were nurtured from an early age in the supportive environment of the Boyd family home, under the supervision of his potter father and artist mother. However, as a part of the extraordinarily talented Boyd artistic dynasty, the artist also benefited from interactions with the many highly creative members of his extended family.
The Boyd family artistic legacy began with Arthur Boyd’s grandmother, Emma Minnie Boyd (née Mills, 1858-1936), a painter of note who married fellow artist, Arthur Merric Boyd (1920-1999), in 1886. From Emma Minnie succeeding generations inherited not only artistic talent, but also wealth, as her mother was the beneficiary of a fortune, derived from her father, a wealthy brewer and former convict. Unsurprisingly, this inheritance came with a social stigma, but Emma Minnie Boyd’s accomplished and cultivated mother rehabilitated the family position to the extent that she married the eldest son of the first Chief Justice of Victoria.
However, by Arthur Boyd’s time the family fortune was dwindling and although his upbringing was richly creative, at times it was materially constrained. Of his grandmother he remembered that,
I must have been eleven or twelve and she still read to me, stories from an illustrated Bible. The book was full of marvellous tinted engravings, which had a memorable effect on me. Some were quite bizarre and grotesque, others were very gruesome…1
Later in life the artist was to employ this biblical imagery to articulate the concerns of his highly developed social conscience, with one of the most persistent themes being the Old Testament parable of Nebuchadnezzar, the great Babylonian king who was cast into the wilderness for seven years. As related in the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar was preoccupied with building monuments to his own grandeur and failed to acknowledge God’s dominion over mankind. He was consequently forced to dwell with ‘the beasts of the field…
till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.’ 2
With Blue Nebuchadnezzar c1970, Boyd echoes the subject’s greatly reduced status by confining the once great ruler to the lower portion of the canvas. In keeping with the Bible verse Nebuchadnezzar’s hands transform into talons and his shoulders into wings, his transmogrification into a ‘beast of the field’ reflecting the king’s advanced state of moral corruption.
The solitary Nebuchadnezzar remains isolated in a void-like space, struggling to prevent himself being subsumed into the earth, as if battling to retain the last vestiges of both his humanity and his mind. As with the Bible parable, in Blue Nebuchadnezzar Boyd uses physical characteristics to demonstrate a spiritual battle, the sense of drama being heightened by the artist’s assured yet frenetic brushwork.
Sources given as the inspiration for Boyd’s engagement with the subject of Nebuchadnezzar are many and varied, ranging from the horrors of the Vietnam War and the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the artist’s hearing of a self-immolation on London’s Hampstead Heath near where he lived in the late 1960s, through to William Blake’s portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar in the Tate. 3
However, as Barry Pearce has noted, for an artist with a strong conscience whose work was a source of self-expression, income and public standing, success brought with it the danger of the artist’s values and sense of self being lost in the attention directed toward him. 4
Given this context, it is hardly surprising that Arthur Boyd identified with the mental struggles of hubristic king and directed his remarkable artistic talents towards making such powerful artistic statements on the human condition as Blue Nebuchadnezzar.
1. Hart, D., Australian Painters of the Twentieth Century, The Beagle Press,
2. Dan. 4:32-33 (King James Version)
3. Darleen Bungey, Arthur Boyd: A Life, Crows Nest, Allen & Unwin, 2007,
pp. 426-429 ; Deborah Hart, Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy, National Gallery
of Australia, Canberra 2004, pp. 87-88, 89; Barry Pearce, Arthur Boyd, Beagle Press in conjunction with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Roseville, 1993, pp. 25-26
4. Pearce, p.26
Anne Phillips MA