How 19th-Century Artists Envisioned the Apocalypse

Alina Cohen
Jan 15, 2019 8:29PM

J.M.W. Turner, The Deluge, 1805. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The legend of the Great Flood transcends major world religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism) and offers the perfect narrative for the new year. In every version of the tale, some type of catastrophic aquatic disaster washes away all of the animals and sinning humans that haven’t boarded the boat built by one virtuous man. Once pared down and purified, mankind has a unique chance to start over. Call it Marie Kondo–ing the world.

If the famous ark parable offers hope for renewal, it’s considerably more frightening to anyone who believes the apocalypse is imminent. This interminable state of dread has inspired worshippers and run-of-the-mill neurotics, as well as artists and writers, for millennia. About a century before Dr. Leo Sternbach invented tranquilizing benzodiazepines, the British suffered from a unique brand of doomsday malaise.

“For the Victorians,” Eva-Charlotta Mebius, an English literature Ph.D. candidate at University College London,recently wrote Artsy, “growing familiarity with the ruins of ancient civilizations fueled anxiety about a possible apocalyptic future for Britain’s own empire.” As political and scientific revolutions altered perceptions of the world around them, “19th-century Britons asked if their society was not safely postdiluvian [after the flood] but in fact still threateningly antediluvian,” Mebius continued. At the Yale Center for British Art, she and chief curator Matthew Hargraves have mounted “Before the Deluge: Apocalyptic Floodscapes from John Martin to John Goto, 1789 to Now,” a thorough exhibition of apocalyptic works by British artists.

Alfred William Hunt, Study for Tynemouth Pier–Lighting the Lamps at Sundown, ca. 1863. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.


Many of the included artworks focus on humanity’s helplessness against nature—an anxiety that plagues us today more than ever. Alfred William Hunt’s Study for Tynemouth Pier—Lighting the Lamps at Sundown (ca. 1863), for example, features two diminutive figures on a rickety wooden dock towards the left side of the canvas; rushing waves and a dark, ominous sky dominate the composition. In the picture, the turbulent sea has partially destroyed the dock, and the figures hunch against the wind, struggling to light the lamps that will guide ships to shore. A pillar has toppled across the pier, and out-of-place planks suggest added damage. The storm is hardly over; the threat of additional battering looms.

Hunt’s painting expresses a skepticism that the day’s newfangled machines—like the water turbine, invented in 1849, which transforms aquatic power into mechanical energy—could ever truly tame or overpower natural forces. No matter how technologically sophisticated society becomes, the painting seems to suggest, we’re always at the mercy of a higher power—the moon and tides, in this case, rather than an all-powerful god.

Such reverence for nature was integral to the Romantic movement that swept Europe throughout the first half of the 19th century. Caspar David Friedrich’s iconic 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, which depicts a man contemplating a misty expanse, exemplifies the Romantic ethos. Yet continental artists like Friedrich, who was German, had different concerns from their island-bound British counterparts.

John Martin, The Deluge, 1828. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.

“In the work of [J.M.W.] Turner and John Martin, there was a new shift of sympathy from the privileged survivors of the ark to the antediluvian generations that were swept away by the flood,” Mebius wrote Artsy. According to her, this attitude “was, and still is, reinforced by the fact that British artists and writers live in a country that is particularly vulnerable, prone to floods and flooding.” In other words, the British artists highlighted in “Before the Deluge” weren’t simply inspired by religious devotion, but by very present fears and dangers.

The Yale exhibition includes Martin’s The Deluge from 1828, a mezzotint etching made firmly in the Romantic era. Again, nature plays the starring role, dwarfing the human figures. The work, a study for Martin’s 1834 painting of the same name, features a group of half-dressed subjects panicking and praying atop a craggy cliff that juts into a rough body of water. A sense of claustrophobia pervades the composition as water surrounds the small subjects on all sides. On the left, a massive wave sweeps upward, threatening to drown the entire group.

Similarly, in The Deluge, an engraving by Turner made between 1813 and 1823, the artist confines his figures to one side of the canvas; mostly nude, they huddle together as the sky darkens and waves swell around them. At the bottom of the composition, a small snake—perhaps a sign of temptation—slithers toward them.

It’s particularly interesting to revisit such pictures in the Brexit era, as the U.K. reconsiders the benefits and drawbacks of national seclusion. But throughout history, the country’s distance from mainland Europe served the nation well, protecting it from invasion. In the work of Martin and Hunt, that isolation becomes more curse than blessing. Maybe unsurprisingly, both artists offer compassionate visions of the sinners imperiled by the flood. It’s easy to be sympathetic, of course, if you’re worried that you might suffer a similar fate.

John Goto, Deluge (High Summer portfolio), 2000–2001. © John Goto. Photo by Richard Caspole. Courtesy of the artist and Dominique Fiat, Paris.

Yet another Turner work featured in the exhibition, a watercolor entitled Yarmouth Sands (ca. 1840), presents a more hopeful scene. Again, the sea dominates the picture, and humans appear as tiny, black stick figures running across the beach, away from the waves. In contrast to Hunt’s work, though, the man-made structures here remain intact: A pier stands steady on the left side of the composition, while a ship in the distance appears to smoothly navigate the choppy sea.

Notably, one of Britain’s greatest—and most notorious—floods from the Romantic era was due to human error. In 1864, the Dale Dyke Dam near Sheffield in northern Britain collapsed. Some 250 people died in the resulting Great Sheffield Flood, and over 5,000 buildings were ruined. According to the BBC, at the time, the government blamed poor engineering on the part of the Sheffield Waterworks Company. Years later, studies discovered the specific cause of the disaster—the faulty construction of a watertight barrier.

The story is a parable fit for the industrial age, and our own era of rapid climate change: man tries to harness nature via machinery and fails, catastrophically. On one hand, this incident reinforces the idea that humans’ great tragedy-inducing sin is pride in thinking we can overcome the elements. On the other, the problem is simply poor science; such disasters encourage greater innovation. These conflicting attitudes toward man, nature, and progress pervade the works of Hunt, Martin, and Turner. But their art doesn’t just betray distinctly Victorian or British concerns—people all over the world are grappling with such issues anew.

Alina Cohen