Making Connections: Louis-Léopold Boilly’s The Flood

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Louis-Léopold Boilly’s drawing The Flood exemplifies the artist’s fascination with contemporary urban life in early nineteenth-century France.  Here he presents the viewer with a dramatic scene of heroism and high emotion, believed to be based on newspaper accounts of floods that hit Europe in 1806 and 1807.  Boilly represents the moment a stranded family is rescued from their inundated home by a group of Napoleonic soldiers.  Depicting the family between treacherous spaces – the flooded home and the flooded city – Boilly selects a moment that engages the viewer’s imagination.  Soldiers struggle against hostile conditions as they steer the boat, infant children cling to their mothers, boys clasp their hands in prayer, young women appear exhausted as the wind whips hair across their faces, contorted with emotion.   A small dog, visible in the lower right corner of the work, energetically swims towards the boat hoping to be included in the soldiers’ heroic deed.  We see the terror the family survived and imagine the natural forces they will contend with as they face the flood.

In its detailed presentation of the figures and turbulent setting, the drawing invites connections beyond the subject matter represented.  Boilly’s positive depiction of soldiers from Napoleon’s army aligns with propagandistic images from the period while the carefully rendered faces and gestures of the women and children reveal Boilly’s masterful handling of the manners and customs of everyday life in nineteenth-century France.