Most famously, the River Seine sought to break its banks – whose rive gauche and rive droite are now on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites – in 1910.
A wet summer in 1909 was followed by heavy snows that saturated the ground. When it started raining on 18 January 1910, the Seine rose with unusual speed. Via Paris’s system of underground improvements, the water infiltrated sewers, tunnels, and underground caves. Soon it was rampaging through the metro and deluging railway stations. Within days, Paris had turned into Venice.
Some of the debris sweeping through the city on the river’s powerful current included casks of wine and pieces of furniture, which Parisians saw as free for the taking. Risking life and limb, they leaned or climbed over the rails of the bridges to get as close as they could. Treasure-seekers tried to grab some of the river’s loot with poles or their bare hands, although the Seine swept most of the pieces away.
When Parisians wanted to know the height of the river, they observed the statues of four soldiers on the Pont de l’Alma (which commemorates the Battle of Alma during the Crimean War, when the Anglo-French alliance beat the Russian army on 20 September 1854). One of them was a Zouave, a light-infantryman in uniform, holding his rifle by the tip of its barrel. When the water began rising in earnest, it lapped against the ankles of his boots, about six feet above its usual level. When the water peaked ten days later at 20 feet above normal, the Zouave was up to his neck.
Of course, the land around the river upstream and downstream was always prone to local flooding, providing artists and photographers with memorable images. “The Flood of Saint-Cloud” is an oil painting by French artist Paul Huet (photo, right), first exhibited in 1855 at the World Fair in Paris. It now hangs in the Musée du Louvre.
Huet was born in 1803 in Paris and was a student in the studio of Antoine-Jean Gros (a pupil of David). In the early 1820s, he came into contact with the talented English landscape painter Richard Parkes Bonnington. Rather than working indoors, the pair preferred to go out into nature and paint from life. The appearance of near-identical works by the two artists suggests the depth of their artistic collaboration. Huet greatly admired John Constable’s landscapes, in particular “The Hay Wain”, exhibited at the Salon of 1824.
Huet’s works include oil paintings, watercolours, etchings, and lithographs, and the vividness with which he depicted natural forms influenced the later Impressionists. He died in Paris on 8 January 1869. “The Flood of Saint-Cloud” is shown below, with its oblique reference to “The Hay Wain”.