Floods are the natural disaster most commonly suffered by humanity, so it is not surprising that they have so often proved an inspiration for painters. Noah’s flood, for example, was one of the first subjects in Christian art, portrayed on the walls of the catacombs beneath Rome from as early as the third century (above).
It has been depicted by artists as diverse as Michelangelo, Raphael, Breughel, Poussin, Turner, Géricault, Millais, Dali, Chagall, and David LaChapelle. Other flood myths, such as the ancient Greek story of Deucalion also attracted artists like Tintoretto.
What attracted the Impressionists to floods was how the changed landscape gave them a new opportunity to investigate the fleeting effects of light. When Port-Marly on the Seine was inundated in the spring of 1876, Sisley painted it seven times, and Monet and Camille Pissarro also executed multiple takes on real floods.
Worries about global warming have stimulated the imaginations of modern artists, with illustrators Robert Graves and Didier Madoc-Jones composing London as Venice in which Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament have become islands in a lake, while the British graffiti artist Banksy painted the slogan: ‘I don’t believe in global warming’ on a wall above a London canal in such a way that the letters seemed to be disappearing beneath the water.
*The full story appears in my new book, Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9) which also includes chapters on how floods have been portrayed in literature and films, on the flood myths that appear in dozens of religions, on history’s deadliest floods, on how some of the most ambitious structures ever built have been erected in an effort to combat flooding, and on the impact that climate change may have on humanity’s attempts to fight floods in the future.