Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall

Arthur Boyd(1966-1968)

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Boyd's Nebuchadnezzar series witnessed the most sumptuously executed paintings of his career. Boyd's predilection for story telling consistently emerged throughout his art, and he infused his obsessions, personal experiences and extraordinary imagination into Old Testament subjects in the late 1940s and again in the 1960s.

According to the Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, was 'driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hairs were grown like eagles' feathers and his nails like birds' claws. "And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven and mine understanding returned unto me and I blessed the most High" and he was re-established in his kingdom'.

The first twentieth century painter to devote himself to imagining the experiences of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness (indeed one of the few apart from Willliam Blake to deal with the subject at all) Boyd was at the height of his powers when he was painting the series between 1968 and 1972, producing thirty-four canvases on the theme of the king's punishments. Reminded of Icarus who, flying too close to the rays of the sun, fell to the earth in flames, he portrayed Nebuchadnezzar as a meteor heading towards a waterfall in the Australian bush.

Boyd's mythical themes were predominantly set within antipodean landscapes and parallels with contemporary events may often be drawn. As Robert Hughes pointed out in 'Time' in 1994, Boyd's narrative in 'Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall', 'clearly related to the acts of self-immolation by protestors against the Vietnam war'. The painting has been seen as a powerful symbol of humanity's vanity and failure during a time of conflict.

A prolific painter, ceramicist, printmaker and draughtsman Boyd is amongst Australia's most profound painters. Much of his best work resonates with both personal and universal significance. Encouraged throughout his childhood by his celebrated family of painters, potters and writers, he attended night classes at Melbourne's National Gallery School and learned much from his grandfather Arthur Merric Boyd. Dostoyevsky's novel 'The brothers Karamazov' was also a significant early influence on the mood of his paintings. Following discharge from the army, Boyd began painting allegorical works based on the Old Testament, inspired by Rembrandt and Pieter Brughel.

His Nebuchadnezzar series was painted whilst living in England between 1959-1971.

© Australian Art Department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006

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  • Title: Nebuchadnezzar on fire falling over a waterfall
  • Creator: Arthur Boyd
  • Date Created: (1966-1968)
  • Physical Dimensions: 183.5 x 175.9 cm stretcher
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Gift of Ms Catherine Palmer 1983 © Reproduced with permission of Bundanon Trust
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Signature & Date: Signed l.r. corner, red oil "Arthur Boyd". Not dated.
  • Object Other Titles: Nebuchadnezzar over a waterfall
  • Artist Country: Australia