Deluge and delusion

The idea of a deluge has always fascinated people. Leonadro da Vinci wanted to paint it, and even wrote a story of the planned painting. A currently running exhibition of British history paintings at Tate Britain dedicates a whole room to the deluge theme. Why?

Water is a source of life. Normally. During a flood, its level rises. At first, it can even be entertaining. Then, it becomes disturbing. And lastly, it grows into something deadly.

I will share a few photos from today’s flood in Sochi, the winter Olympics city, and then a gallery of my favourite flood paintings. With artists primarily interested in the deadly part of a deluge story (the last survivors about to be killed by the next wave), a modern deluge seems to lack adequate artistic response.

So, the modern flood in Sochi:

And now, artistic response. 

The best known traditional deluge is perhaps the one by Michelangelo, with a focus on human drama, and survivors helping each other. No mighty waves and desperately drowning people, though there are people whose boat is about to capsize.


Or by Turner, where natural forces play as big a part as suffering humans:

The Deluge ?exhibited 1805 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
The Deluge, exhibited 1805 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Or by modern artists, who focus on natural forces. almost exclusively, trying to make you feel not an observer, but someone who is about to drown himself:

Norman Adams, RA, The Flood, 1970s
Norman Adams, RA, The Flood, 1970s

Art response to a non-Biblical deluge was pioneered by Leonardo da Vinci (you can enjoy its full version here):

delugeBut still it’s more of an Apocalypse than a normal flood.

One of my favourite deluges comes from Alfred Sisley. Everything is flooded, but people find ways to go on living. The subtle but strong conflict between the flooded land and the skies is one of the best in the history of arts.

Claude Monet left a nice gallery of flooded nature, but it’s more about the “airs” and the trees reflecting in the water:

One of the most unusual floods was painted by a Pre-Raphaelite, Sir John Everett Millais. I am not sure if it is sentimentality or water that floods this painting, though.

A Flood by John Everett Millais
A Flood by John Everett Millais

Poor Eisenstein with his Potemkin movie! It turns out he was not the first with his pram:


Contemporary flood paintings often look like documentaries, rather than generalisations about the human condition:

Samuel Burton, Wakefield Westgate End flood Painting.
Rajeev Raj, Flood Of Kosi River
Rajeev Raj, Flood Of Kosi River
Rob Adams, Flood at Henley

Where’s the new, contemporary flood? Where are the new ideas? What about old people who refuse the leave their homes in the face of imminent death? What about rescue teams that risk their lives trying to help those who thought it was nothing and didn’t leave when there was still a chance? What’s the drama of a modern flood?

Or has the flood stopped being fascinating? 


  1. Fascinating subject and so relevant in our time of global warming! You got me thinking of producing something of my own. I have been contemplating the subject, since I am living on a flat tropical island, but have not been satisfied with my ideas so far. I find it difficult to dissociate the notion of flood from its biblical connotation, which makes it all the more challenging as an art subject as I wouldn’t want to take that direction. Thank you for bringing it up – mind is working here.

      1. 🙂 I am sure you inspire many an artist! I am travelling at the moment with on and off access to the Internet, which has some positive sides. I have missed your latest posts, but I am catching up.

  2. One of the most exciting memories from my childhood was when it flooded in our hometown and the water rose perilously close to our front door. My siblings and I scrambled into our bathing suits and splashed through the muddy waters, past floating prams, letterboxes, tree branches and other flotsam and jetsam. It was awfully thrilling – but in hindsight, it was a mere puddle compared to the catastrophes occurring in many parts of the world. Nature is so incredible – the greatest muse for the artistic soul.

  3. Beautiful this post, very thorough and complete.
    Personally I do not find any charm in a flood.
    Two years ago, our village was flooded, the water has flooded the streets, it came into our houses doing a lot of damages. Now when it rains we fear and look at the sky hoping it stops soon.
    I usually paint, but honestly I never thought to represent what I saw in those days.
    Maybe because we have seen, and we often see, these disasters on television.
    Before the invention of photography, film and television, perhaps the artists felt a duty to represent life and these misfortunes also.
    Beautiful painting by Millais, the black kitten tells all the anguish of what happened, looking the little child I thought of Moses.

    1. Thank you, Neda! I guess there’s more to a flood than just misfortune. It’s also about the way we relate to nature: we need it, we depend on it and we fear it.

    2. What is true about Millais’ painting is the colour of the water. It’s never clean. It’s almost not water anymore – just like in Sochi photographs.

  4. The recent depictions of the flood seem more about the loss of material goods rather than the loss of life. Michalangelo and Turner’s deluge seems a lot more catastrophic to human life. The Millais painting with the baby and cat floating in the cradle shows an amazing survival situation. The Flood of the Kosi River almost looks like a day at the beach – what with the man in swimming trunks and the woman in a bathing suit walking two dogs on a leash. Interesting subject no doubt.
    I’ve started posting some of my work on my site if you are interested, no floods though.

    1. Yes, you’re right about the material goods, but there’s more to a flood than just cars flushed away and houses in need of renovation, but it somehow is left unaddressed. Millais’ survival situation is just way to staged for me. i don’t think miracles need to be invented in this manner, for they happen on their own, albeit in a different form. I began looking at your paintings, thank you for the notice – and I will keep coming back to see them. Looking at paintings is a lengthy process for me, like making friends, I guess )

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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