Francis Danby

The Deluge

exhibited 1840

On loan

La Triennale di Milano (Milan, Italy): Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries

Francis Danby 1793–1861
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2845 × 4521 mm
frame: 3037 × 4740 × 110 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971

Display caption

Danby made his name with epic subjects, often on a large scale. This was his last. The subject is from the Old Testament book of Genesis. God sends a flood to punish mankind’s wickedness but allows Noah and his family to be saved. Noah’s ark is in the background, illuminated by a shaft of moonlight. A stormy sea rages round a rocky peak and massive tree branches, to which humans and animals are clinging desperately. A blood-red sun can be seen setting to the left. In the lower right hand corner, an angel weeps over the death of a child.

Gallery label, March 2010

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Catalogue entry

Francis Danby 1793–1861

T01337 The Deluge exhibited 1840

Not inscribed.
Canvas, 112 x 178 (284.5 x 452).
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971.
Coll: William Jones, sold Christie’s, 8 May 1852 (125) bt. in; by descent to Miss Gladys Herbert, sold to John Basket 1968; bt. Friends of the Tate Gallery 1971.
Exh: 213 Piccadilly (private room) May-June 1840; Horticultural Rooms, Park Street, Bristol, 1840; Industrial Exhibition, Dublin, 1853 (60).
Lit: Athenaeum, 1840, p.476; 1852, p.657; Blackwoods Magazine, XLVIII, 1840, p.386; Frazer’s Magazine, 1840, p.420; The Times, 30 May and 18 June 1840; The Art Journal, 1861, p. 118; E. W. Adams, Francis Danby (Ph.D. thesis, London University), 1969, pp.210-19, 317-18, No. 16.
Repr: Burlington Magazine, CXIV, 1972, p.443, fig. 122.

This dramatic Biblical theme, the largest work Danby ever painted, was intended to re-establish the artist’s reputation when he returned to England in 1840 after an absence of eleven years on the Continent. The subject may have been chosen in competition with his old rival John Martin, who exhibited two of his trilogy of Deluge themes at the Royal Academy in 1840 (T.Balston, Martin, 1947, p. 203). Unlike Martin, Danby has chosen to encompass the whole drama in one work. His comprehensiveness led Thackeray, when reviewing Danby’s picture in Frazer’s Magazine, to praise this treatment of the subject above those by Martin, Turner and even Poussin:

‘He has painted the picture of “The Deluge”; we have before our eyes still the ark in the midst of the ruin floating calm and lonely, the great black cataracts of water pouring down, the mad rush of the miserable people clambering up the rocks.’

As well as such meteorological portents as lightning, a comet, and a blood-red setting sun, Danby has also extended his theme by the use of symbolic references to destruction, in particular the juxtaposition of the serpent and the drowning lion, and the angel weeping over the dead giant. This giant may have been included by Danby on account of the references to venerable giants and heroes that occur in Genesis vi, 4, at the beginning of the account of the Deluge.

According to Danby’s own report (Adams, op. cit., p. 317), the artist completed this work in France before returning to England in the spring of 1840. The background is traditionally supposed to have been derived from the coast of Brittany. The picture also shows the effects of Danby’s three years stay in Paris, particularly in the smooth, glassy, technique which reveals the influence of French Academic painting. The reviewer in the Athenaeum compared the figures in the foreground to the ‘frantic exaggeration’ of those in the ‘great green “Deluge”’ by Girodet in the Louvre. The rising pinnacle of figures struggling up the rocky promontory may, as Dr Adams suggests, have been inspired by the compositional form of Gericault’s ‘Raft of the Medusa’. Danby was also strongly influenced by ‘The Deluge’ of Poussin, which he had copied in the Louvre in 1837.

Despite a favourable press coverage, ‘The Deluge’ does not appear to have been a great public success, and Danby returned in later years to smaller paintings of lyrical themes. Although the Athenaeum reported when reviewing the Jones sale in 1852 that the work had been engraved, the obituary of Danby in The Art Journal in 1861 stated that the artist had retained the engraving copyright throughout his life. No engraving of the work is known.

Danby had been interested in the theme of the Deluge since his first period in London between 1825 and 1829 when he had achieved notable success with such apocalyptic themes as The Opening of the Sixth Seal (R.A. 1828 (340); National Gallery of Ireland). A ‘Deluge’ in the City of York Art Gallery which is ascribed to Danby (City of York Art Gallery Preview, VII, 1954, p. 290) is dated by Adams to this period. Amongst the works sold from Danbv’s studio by Foster’s, 15 May 1861, were ‘The Eve of the Deluge’ (50) and a drawing of the same subject (6).

The small replica of T01337 in the Tate Gallery (N06134) is apparently by another hand.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1970–1972, London 1972.

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