The World Before the Flood

The World Before the Flood is an oil-on-canvas painting by the English artist William Etty, first exhibited in 1828 and currently in the Southampton City Art Gallery. It depicts a scene from John Milton's Paradise Lost in which, among a series of visions of the future shown to Adam, he sees the world immediately before the Great Flood. The painting illustrates the stages of courtship as described by Milton; a group of men select wives from a group of dancing women, drag their chosen woman from the group, and settle down to married life. Behind the courting group, an oncoming storm looms, foreshadowing the destruction which the dancers and lovers are about to bring upon themselves.

The World Before the Flood
The World Before the Flood, 1828, 140 by 202.3 cm (55.1 by 79.6 in)
ArtistWilliam Etty
Year1828 (1828)
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions140 cm × 202.3 cm (55 in × 79.6 in)
LocationRussell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

When first exhibited at the 1828 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition the painting attracted large crowds, and strongly divided critical opinion. It was greatly praised by many critics, who counted it among the finest works of art in the country. Other reviewers condemned it as crude, tasteless, offensive and poorly executed.

The painting was bought at the Summer Exhibition by the Marquess of Stafford. It was sold in 1908, long after Etty had fallen out of fashion, for a substantial loss, and sold again in 1937 for a further substantial loss to the Southampton City Art Gallery, where it remains. Another work by Etty, sold as A Bacchanalian Scene in 1830 and later renamed Landscape with Figures, was identified in 1953 as a preliminary oil sketch for The World Before the Flood and purchased by the York Art Gallery. The two paintings were exhibited together as part of a major retrospective of Etty's work in 2011–2012.


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