Scene of Deluge Painting: Meaning and Analysis

Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court.

Joseph-Désiré Court belonged to a family of artists, more specifically portraitists. Naturally, he grew up to be a trained portraitist as well. He was however not very rich and could not afford the time and money to invest in a large project. As a result, Court focused on smaller paintings that he could sell easily.

About The Artist

The artist soon had enough money to pursue higher studies in art. While he was studying in Rome, he won a few accolades for his brilliant work. In 1821 Court recieved the Prix de Rome scholarship through which he could study and live in Rome for three to five years. He also earned the highest French order of Merit, that is, the title of Legion of Honor in 1838. 

Portrait of Sylvain Charles Valée (1838) by Joseph-Désiré Court. Public Domain.

It was during his time in Rome that he created one of his most famous works titled “Death of Ceaser” in 1827. His work was highly appreciated on account of the accuracy in representation and attention to detail. This painting is located at the Louvre Museum of France.

By 1828 he returned to France and became a corresponding member of the Académie de Rouen. In 1853, Court became the director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts and held the position till his death.

“Scene from the Great Flood” or “Scene of Deluge” is one of Court’s lesser-known works that has recently been heavily appreciated on social media. Following is a detailed analysis of his 1826 Scene of Deluge painting. 

Myth of The Great Flood

Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court.
Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court. Public Domain

The Myth of Deluge is a common theme in several religious scriptures. According to the myth, a great flood is initiated by a religious figure usually the God of Destruction. 

The flood annihilates all of humanity in the form of punishment for our sins. The water is also a metaphor for purification of the world and a sign of rebirth. In all of these myths, there is a “savior” who represents strength and other godly virtues. 

In Christian mythology, the flood is known as “The Great Flood” or “The Great Deluge”. In this myth, God floods the entire world, except for the chosen savior by name of “Noah”. Noah is instructed to build an ark so that he can save as many species as he can, allowing the world to be reborn. 

Following is a detailed analysis of the Scene of Deluge Painting by Joseph-Désiré Court.

Composition – Scene of Deluge Painting

The scene is illuminated by a single source of light entering the frame from the left. We see a young man kneeling at the edge of a cliff trying to save an elderly man who is drowning. On the right side is a woman holding on to a branch jutting out of the cliff. She holds her child above the water with her other hand.

The four subjects represent a family. The drowning old man is the young man’s father. The woman is his wife and the baby is their child. Court beautifully flaunts his skill in anatomical accuracy through a sharp contrast between light and shadow. 

Details in Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court.
Anatomy in Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court.

Speaking of anatomy, while the body of the young man is on full display, it is the baby that catches my eye. The strain in the baby’s arm being held up by his mother and his body dangling helplessly at an odd curvature highly dramatizes the scene. The background is completely obscured which allows the subjects to pop out of the scene.

One would then notice the woman’s face. While only a third of her face is visible, all her emotions are clear and strong. Lastly, we see the old man can barely keep his head above the water as he reaches out for his son’s hand. 

The painting largely portrays shades of yellow and red with a hint of pure white for the highlights. The usage of yellow undertones is common in historical and biblical paintings.

Meaning and analysis – Scene of Deluge painting

Most paintings depict the life of Noah when it comes to illustrating the Great Flood. However, Court shows us the life of other people who have been affected by the flood. We see a family in distress, while three members are drowning, it’s up to a young man to save them.

Details in Scene of Deluge (1826) by Joseph-Désiré Court.

All three who are drowning look directly toward the man who could save them with an open mouth probably asking for help, their eyes filled with fear and very little hope. 

It is clear that the man finally decides to save his father while his child and wife are about to drown on the other side. One may also notice that the wife and the son are easily within reach. Yet he chooses to save the old man, who seems to slip out of his grip.

The father may be considered a symbol of the past while the wife is his present and the son his future. A young man clings to his past while ignoring what he has now and the opportunities that his future could bring. As a result of his choice, he not only loses his child and wife but also his father who is just out of reach.

Whether the man saves his wife and child or only his father, it would be impossible to survive the flood. In this way, the artist also highlights the futility of life and our efforts. 

Court’s illustration of the Deluge is a reflection of human suffering who are condemned by God to suffer and die. It shows the suffering of those who were not chosen by an unjust God to be saved like Noah and his family.

Where is the Scene of Deluge Painting?

The painting is presented in the paintings department of Musée des Beaux-Arts, also known as the Museum of Fine Art of Lyon.


Joseph-Désiré Court takes a unique and thoughtful take on a biblical myth where instead of highlighting the greatness of God’s plan, we see all that is unfair, unpleasant, and painful.

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