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image icon 'Persecuted lovers', 1957-58

'Persecuted lovers', 1957-58
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil and tempera painting by Arthur Boyd (1920-99), dating from 1957-58. Measuring 137.2 cm x 182.9 cm, the work shows a kneeling man (who wears a business suit, tie and hat and has a white beetle on his left cheek) pointing a rifle at a man and woman who are lying together on the ground. The man on the ground has blue skin and a large red ear from which a bunch of flowers protrudes, and he wears a green coat with brass buttons. He is holding the woman very closely and looking intently into her face with one very large eye. The woman has red hair, in which there is a green beetle, and a blue hand, and wears a long white semi-transparent dress. The kneeling man has the hem of the woman's dress pinned down with his right shoe and another section of the dress draped over his left arm. The background features a burnt-out landscape set against a pink and purple sky. Behind the kneeling figure is a small group of dead tree trunks, one of which has a large bird perched on top.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Arthur Boyd, who is widely acclaimed as one of Australia's greatest painters - Boyd attended night classes at the National Gallery Art School, Melbourne, in 1935; from 1936 to 1939 he painted landscapes with his artist grandfather Arthur Merric Boyd (1862-1940) at Rosebud on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula; during the Second World War (1941-45) Boyd produced a series of images that expressed his horror at the suffering caused by war; 1945 saw Boyd commence a series of Australian landscapes that directly referenced the work of Dutch artist Pieter Breughel (c1525-69) in their depictions of religious scenes and crowd action; from 1948 to 1959 he produced some of his best known series of works, which included figures in landscapes drawn from the Wimmera and Berwick regions of Victoria and the (half-caste) 'Bride' series (begun in 1957); in 1959 Boyd relocated to England, but returned in the early 1980s to settle at Shoalhaven and later Bundanon (a 1,000-hectare property on the south coast of New South Wales); in 1993 Boyd donated Bundanon to the nation, along with several thousand works of art from five generations of the Boyd family of artists and from other Australian artists
  • is an important work from Boyd's well-known 'Bride' series - the 'Love, marriage and death of a half-caste' is a series of allegorical paintings (first exhibited by Boyd in 1958 at the Australian Galleries, Sydney, and again in 1960 at Zwemmer Galleries, London) is regarded as the most important series of subject pictures painted in Australia in the 1950s
  • is closely related to the artist's first real contact with Indigenous Australian people - in 1951 Boyd made a brief trip by train to Central Australia; as he later commented, when he arrived at Alice Springs he noticed there were cattle trucks at the back of the train with Indigenous Australians in them, who 'presumably had been shut in until they arrived at their destination' ... 'it was extremely hot, and seeing the Aborigines in such bad shape was depressing. I had prior to my trip only seen one Aboriginal, a chap around Melbourne who played a gumleaf ... at that stage the plight of the Aborigines wasn't known to most Australians ... I was amazed that in 1951 no one seemed concerned'; on another occasion he saw a group of Indigenous Australian brides on their way to church, herded together on the back of a cattle truck; images such as these became the catalyst for Boyd's 'Bride' series
  • features one of the artist's most significant symbols, that of persecuted lovers - images of a man and a woman being threatened by some form of danger first appeared in Boyd's work in the small expressionist-style paintings and drawings he made in 1943-44; Boyd once commented 'I see lovers as victims' ... 'pictures with an animal or another human figure watching are intended to give the idea of spying, a disturbance, a breaking into the moment of privacy'; up until the 1960s Boyd's lovers were unmistakably Adam and Eve, guilty figures being watched or threatened and banished from the Garden of Eden into a nightmare wilderness; from around 1962, his lovers are no longer portrayed as being threatened, rather they have escaped to a mythological world where the eternal themes of love, sex, jealousy and betrayal are acted out
  • uses symbolism to explore the human emotions of love and hatred - the man with the gun is wearing the conventional 'uniform' of a modern-day (European) businessman (hat, suit and tie), but is holding an 18th- to early 19th-century-era flint-lock rifle (a possible reference to modern-day racism having its roots in the early colonial era); the white dress of the bride is an instantly recognisable symbol of innocence and purity, likewise, her red hair is also a symbol of innocence, however, the green beetle in her hair signifies desire or fear; the scarab-like beetle on the kneeling man's face is an ancient Egyptian symbol of transformation and renewal, and the blue skin is one of the visual attributes of the Hindu deity Vishnu; the bunch of flowers protruding from the man's ear may be a kind of funeral posy, while the black predatory bird and lurid colours of the background add to an overall mood of death and destruction
  • illustrates the influence (at that time) on Boyd's work of the European artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) - Chagall's dreamlike evocations of childhood often included floating forms; the artist often posed himself in the paintings (sometimes with his wife, who was depicted as a floating white bride), and the bridegroom in these paintings usually wore a brass-buttoned green jacket, as does the man in this painting.