Great floods of 1856

Great floods of 1856

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Title: Great floods of 1856.

Author : ANONYMOUS (-)

Creation date : 1856

Date shown: 1856

Dimensions: Height 31.8 - Width 41.6

Technique and other indications: wood stencil colored on paper Pellerin (editor), Epinal

Storage location: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Picture reference: 01.2.29 / MNATP 53.86.4812 C

Great floods of 1856.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

During the 19th century, flooding was the natural cataclysm most often depicted in current affairs imagery. Whether it is about floods devastating the major part of the territory as in 1856 and 1866, or more localized floods: “Terribles floods du Midi” (June 1875) or “Inondations de la Seine” (March 1876), the theme is treated in a manner which will be quickly fixed.

Image Analysis

The Great floods of 1856, the firsts of the series produced by the imagery of Epinal, are interesting from the double point of view of the genesis of the theme and, on the other hand, of the fixation of visual motifs which will hardly vary in the later editions. It is unlikely that the author of the print was a direct witness to the disaster. The destruction of buildings is more reminiscent of a bombardment than the result of a flood. This motif of the total devastation of the buildings, visibly borrowed from the imagery of the war, will not be repeated in the later, better documented compositions, where the houses for the most part intact only reveal their roofs and upper floors. . The right part of the image shows a section of emerged earth which almost miraculously opposes - by the presence of the emperor - the raging waters, marked on the left by the accumulation of debris and the violent current. The central motif of the boat of refugees - women, old people and children - taken over by the military authority assisted by civilian volunteers is the commonplace par excellence of the flood seen by topical imagery. Note that this motif will survive the technical transformations of this type of imagery since it will still be central in photographic representations from the beginning of the 20th century and it remains the very icon of the flood in contemporary reports.


More than the flood, the general theme is the emperor's determination to ostentatiously come to the aid of the victims of uncontrollable natural events. The text presents the flood through the eyes of the emperor, and the image follows the text. The location of the scene remains vague, the important thing being the meeting on the same image of power and the cataclysm. The iconographic vocabulary and the moralizing legend will survive the regime since the floods of the Seine in 1876 will present a similar composition, the emperor being replaced by Mac-Mahon.

  • bonapartism
  • floods
  • Napoleon III
  • propaganda
  • Second Empire
  • Mac Mahon (Patrice de)


Georges Edouard BOILET The Social Doctrine of Napoleon III Paris, 1969, p.62-64. Jean TULARD (ed.) Dictionary of the Second Empire Paris, Fayard, 1995.

To cite this article

Frédéric MAGUET, "Great floods of 1856"

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