William Blake • Drawings and illustrations, 1805, 54.3×72.5 cm
About the artwork
Subject and objects: Mythological scene, Literary scene
Style of art: Romanticism
Technique: Watercolor, Ink, Print
Materials: Paper
Date of creation: 1805
Size: 54.3×72.5 cm
Artwork in selections: 39 selections
Exhibitions history
William Blake. Painter
September 11, 2019 − February 2, 2020
Tate Britain, Milbank

Description of the artwork «Nebuchadnezzar»

Nebuchadnezzar is a colour monotype print with additions in ink and watercolour illustrating the fourth chapter of the Bible's Book of Daniel. It portrays the Old Testament Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, who had a strange dream and asked his advisor Daniel to interpret it. The latter said that the ruler would be punished, and the punishment would end after seven years when he would acknowledge the supreme power in heaven. So it happened: the stuck-up Nebuchadnezzar "was driven away from people and ate grass like the ox. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird." (Daniel 4:33) He only returned to his true human form in seven years, when he raised his eyes toward heaven and praised God.

According to the biographer Alexander Gilchrist, in Blake's print the viewer is faced with the "mad king crawling like a hunted beast into a den among the rocks; his tangled golden beard sweeping the ground, his nails like vultures' talons, and his wild eyes full of sullen terror. The powerful frame is losing semblance of humanity, and is bestial in its rough growth of hair, reptile in the toad-like markings and spottings of the skin, which takes on unnatural hues of green, blue, and russet."

The man is rendered by Blake extremely animalistic. The muscular body of the King clearly indicates that he isn't actually a beast, and once was a great man. But his torso is covered with hair, resembling muscles, and the nails on his fingers and toes turn into claws. Viewer's attention is most attracted to the haunted human eyes of Nebuchadnezzar: he gazes at the ground, face twisted in an expression of shock and disgust. This could be the moment of reason, when the king recognized his humanity, and "blessed the most High, and praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion..." (Daniel, 4:34).

It seems that the realization of one’s human nature and the fact that it is in the power of God is the main theme of this work. The only real difference between this figure, the most powerful king in the world, and an animal is self-recognition. In the Bible, the only difference is God’s will, but with knowledge of Blake’s opinion on religion we can allow the interpretation to widen. This reading into the subtext of the story leads to an exploration of the subtleties of the difference between humans and other animals.

Nebuchadnezzar was part of the so-called Large Colour Prints; a series begun in 1795 of twelve colour monotype prints. These were painted on millboard, after which the board was put through Blake's printing-press with a sheet of dampened paper to make the prints. After they were printed, Blake and his wife Catherine added ink and watercolour to the impressions. It existed in four impressions (copies), which are now in: Tate Britain in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the fourth one which has been missing since 1887.

Such prints unusually have no accompanying text, but Blake's series seem to have been conceived in contrasting pairs, such as Newton and Nebuchadnezzar. What comparison is the author making here? What does the choice of characters, their poses, colours and contrasting light against dark suggest?

In the age of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, Newton and his rational, scientific explanations for the world seemed almost a God – but not to Blake! He saw Newton as the symbol of the repression of the Imagination and the creative, artistic spirit by reason and the embodiment of the idea that everything can be measured and understood. In contrast, Nebuchadnezzar is shown turning into an animal, symbolising for Blake the bestiality of the man who has become a slave to the senses. Pure sensuality, like pure reason, is seen by the artist as antipathetic to Imagination.

Author: Vlad Maslov