The Painting: In a rocky mountain pass, a heroic male nude encounters a figure with the head and pointed bare breasts of a woman, the ornate blue feathered wings of a bird, the clawed arms and legs of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The male figure holds a long, ornate spear with his left hand, and a chalice decorated with a snake and four griffons sits atop a pedestal beside him. An enigmatic hand, foot, and human bone riddle the foreground. While such a scene may seem foreign today, nineteenth-century viewers of Gustave Moreau’s (French, 1826–1898) painting were quite familiar with the subject.
The picture shows the famous confrontation between the adventurer Oedipus and the mythic predatory monster, the Sphinx, memorably told by the great Greek tragedian, Sophocles (498-406 BC). The creature plagued the city of Thebes, accosting travelers and killing everyone who could not answer her riddle: "What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?" Oedipus defeated the Sphinx by answering the riddle: it is man, himself, who crawls as an infant, rises to two feet as an adult, and often requires the aid of a walking stick as a "third leg" in old age, the "evening" of life. In responding correctly, Oedipus saved his own life and all of Thebes, and became the city’s king. Moreau painted the subject several times. This first version, from 1864, was shown in the Salon of that year, where it made Moreau’s name by winning a medal, spawning much discussion in the press, and finding an immediate purchaser in Prince Napoleon. The artist returned to the subject on multiple occasions in the 1880s.
Moreau’s interpretation of the mythological theme relied heavily on that of his predecessor, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), in his Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx (see Additional Images, fig. 1). Moreau would have seen Ingres’s version of the scene when it was exhibited in Paris in 1846, the year Moreau was admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at age twenty and when he was studying with the Neoclassical painter François Edouard Picot (1786–1868). Most likely, Moreau would have seen the picture again when Ingres exhibited it in his large retrospective at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. About 1860 Moreau made four small drawings on the back of a page in a book he owned that shift compositionally from Ingres’s Oedipus to his own. (The cartoon after Ingres is reproduced in Holten 1957.) Both painters depicted the moment when Oedipus confronts the monster on a mountainside outside Thebes. But whereas Ingres included the foot of a dead victim and the skull and ribs of a prior contender at solving the Sphinx’s riddle at bottom left, in his final oil Moreau was more extreme in his inclusion of morbid details, reveling in the green, rotting flesh of her prior victim’s foot and dirty toenails, an earlier victim’s ribcage, and the representation of a hand with grimy fingernails that clutches a rock as if holding on to the last gasps of life. Where Ingres’s Oedipus self-confidently dominates the encounter, Moreau’s Oedipus remains still as the Sphinx lunges aggressively toward him, her long, curved claws scratching Oedipus’s chest. Where Ingres’s hero displays naturalistic muscularity, Moreau’s Oedipus presents his long legs and the muscular ridge where his abdomen meets his hip in a classic contrapposto pose that highlights the thin ideal body type common in later nineteenth-century European painting and sculpture. Although Moreau’s Oedipus leans away from the monster, he courageously stares her down.
While sources for the Sphinx’s pose have been found in such diverse places as a poem by Heinrich Heine (Holten 1957) and the Greek etymology of the term "sphinx," which means "to clutch, embrace, or cling to" (Dorra 1973, citing a paper written on the subject in 1863 by Michel Bréal), it seems more likely that Moreau was looking at antique precedents. Kaplan (1982) noted that Moreau traced an image from a copy of the Magasin Pittoresque of 1834 in his own library that illustrated a composite creature related to the Sphinx with a lion’s body and wings; he also identified sources in various antiquities in the Louvre for the body of the Sphinx (see below) and, for the posture, singled out a Persian motif of a lion from Persepolis. Dorra suggested that the figure of Oedipus could be derived from the design of a Bithynian coin of Nicomedes II depicting Zeus leaning on a staff with an eagle on his right (see Additional Images, fig. 2). Moret (2000) found another ancient source for Oedipus’s pose in an Attic funerary relief. Andrea Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian (ca. 1478–80?, Musée du Louvre, Paris) is also often cited as a source for the figure of Oedipus. While the Italian painting was not acquired by the Louvre until 1910, it was already well-known in France through engraving, and the critic Jules Claretie (1864) noted the painting’s stylistic debt to the same Italian Renaissance master. Finally, Kaplan (1982) also cited possible sources for Oedipus in the Athena Farnese, a major sculptural monument in Naples, and Giovanni Bellini’s San Giobbe Altarpiece (ca. 1487) in the Accademia in Venice. Moreau copied the image of the urn with four griffons, seen at right, from folios of Piranesi engravings he had inherited from his father; the column was inspired by another print from the same album of a marble funerary monument (Lacambre 1999). Moreau adjusted the column in the final painting but kept the urn close to its source. (The Piranesi print is reproduced in Lacambre 1999, p. 80, fig. 1.)
Dorra proposed the following iconographic associations for objects in the painting: the crown and purple cloth as emblems of political power, the golden laurel as representative of official academic honors, the fig tree at the left of the Sphinx as a traditional symbol of sin, and the jewelry of the Sphinx as a symbol for material wealth. Kaplan (1982) associated the butterfly near the ornate chalice with the soul and the snake coiled around the pedestal with death, noting that the butterfly’s escape from the snake echoes the laurel as a symbol of victory.
Context: The context for Ingres’s and Moreau’s versions of the scene differed substantially. According to Rosenblum (Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, New York, 1967, p. 80), Ingres’s picture conformed to "the growing Romantic taste for the grotesque and the sublime that, in France, was to reach its climax in the works of Gericault and Delacroix." Moreau’s painting, produced nearly forty years later, has been seen to relate to a growing fear of socially and politically powerful women among the French populace at mid-century. (See Heller 1981, pp. 8–9, 11–13 and Mathews 1999, pp. 98, 107–11, 113–14, 259 n. 27, among others.) Politician and philosopher Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s (1809–1865) anti-feminist writings, ranging from the late 1840s until the 1875 posthumous publication of his unfinished treatise La Pornocratie ou les femmes dans les temps modernes, cautioned that men must subordinate women, or cultural degeneracy would follow. Moreau’s picture may allude to the same concerns.
Moreau, himself, described the subject of the painting in his private notebook with commentaries on his paintings, emphasizing the ultimate victory of man over female monster: "The painter imagines man as having attained the serious and momentous hour of his life and finding himself in the presence of the eternal enigma. She clutches him in an embrace with her terrible claws—but the pilgrim, noble and calm in his moral power, regards her without trembling. She is the earthly chimera, vile as all matter and attractive nonetheless—represented by this charming head and the wings of the ideal, but with the body of a monster, of the carnivore who rips apart and annihilates. But the strong and firm soul defies the monster’s bestialities. Man, [strong] and firm, defies the enervating and brutal blows of matter. With his eyes fixed on the ideal, he proceeds confidently towards his goal after having trampled her under his feet." (Moreau, Notebook II, III, 21, in Kaplan 1974, p. 142, translated in Heller 1981) Elements such as the snake and the fig tree placed in proximity to the female Sphinx link women and temptation; similarly, a bit later in the century, the "New Woman," the freshly independent woman anathema to conservative French society, was often represented as Medusa, with snakes in her hair.
Moreau excelled in images of manslaughter and encounters involving women and beasts, of which the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx is a prime example. He followed his success with Oedipus and the Sphinx by exhibiting Jason (see Additional Images, fig. 3) the next year, in which Medea’s hand on Jason’s shoulder and her grasp on the magic potion that led to his slaying of the dragon at their feet both convey her power over the hero. The Sphinx atop the column next to them reinforces Medea’s role in the death of the dragon. That same year, Moreau also produced Orpheus, in which the finding of the protagonist’s head by a young girl reminds viewers of Orpheus’s gruesome dismemberment by maenads, wild female followers of the god Dionysus (see Additional Images, fig. 4). These paintings have been related to anxieties about the changing social position of women that only increased in France by the mid-1870s, when Moreau depicted the biblical femme fatale Salomé (see, for example, Additional Images, fig. 5), who demanded and received the head of Saint John the Baptist in exchange for her seductive dancing (Heller 1981; Mathews 1999); other Academic painters, such as Henri Regnault, also embraced this subject (see, for example, The Met, 16.95). Moreau’s depictions of the mythological themes of the Sphinx, Medea, and Orpheus inspired many Symbolist artists who followed him, like Fernand Khnopff, to undertake their own versions of the subjects.
Moreau’s interest in mythology as a powerful means of conveying ideas through symbols and emblem-laden figures has been discussed extensively by Lacambre (1999), Cooke (2003), Allan (2008), and Larson (2015). Larson argued that the present painting "functions as allegory, with Oedipus, representing the soul of man, treading over the corpses of the material world, all the while resisting the temptations of its seductive side, represented by the female Sphinx. According to this interpretation, Moreau’s figures correspond to specific ideas." Larson noted that this interpretation was steeped in a theory of correspondences between material objects and spiritual ideas that was common in the later nineteenth century. Lacambre also contended that the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx encapsulated the opposing forces of good and evil, man and woman, and spiritual and material. Similarly, Allan discussed Moreau’s "emblematizing the equation Matter=Woman=Evil" in the Sphinx (a role that the femme fatale would inhabit soon in Symbolist art), pointed out that several period critics harped on the Sphinx’s "sexually predatory" nature, and termed Moreau’s reading of the myth "misogynistic."
Still other interpretations of the picture have included psychological readings. Paladilhe (1971), in a Freudian reading of Oedipus and the Sphinx, notes that Moreau’s father died just a few months before he began the painting, and argues that the artist projected onto the theme his unconscious desire to exorcise the castrating influence of his mother. It has also been suggested that this work symbolizes Moreau's struggle in choosing the life of an artist and giving up sensual gratification, and, similarly, that it presents an allegory of the artist ‘s own spiritual refusal of material temptations in his pursuit of idealism (Kaplan 1974; Allan 2008).
Studies for the Painting: Moreau made over thirty preparatory sketches for the painting over a two year period. In 1862, he began with studies of stuffed animals and birds in the Muséum d’histoire naturelle (Lacambre 1999). That same year, he received a student card to work in the galleries of anatomy, zoology, botany, geology, and minerology in the same museum, and an artist’s card to work in the Louvre. There, he studied works from antiquity that heavily influenced his archaizing style. In addition to working at the Louvre, he gained knowledge of antique precedents from books in the private library he shared with his father (Helma-Tisserent 1981 and Moret 2000).
Among the many studies for the picture reproduced in Kaplan 1974 are: a pencil study of ca. 1860 for Oedipus sketched into Moreau’s copy of Giovanni De Cavallerii’s Antiquarium Statuarum Urbis Romae (Rome, 1594) (no. 30); a watercolor of Oedipus and the Sphinx of ca. 1860 (no. 31); a first idea for the two figures together in pencil, pen, and ink, of 1861 (no. 29); an undated study for Oedipus, in pencil (no. 32); and an undated study for the Sphinx's wing, in pencil (no. 33), that reveals the artist’s close zoological study. An early sketch in the Musée national Gustave Moreau (see Additional Images, fig. 6) shows the artist working out the poses of the Sphinx and Oedipus, whose hipshot stance would soon become more exaggerated. Close studies of the heads of both figures (see Additional Images, figs. 7, 8) demonstrate the artist beginning to consider the texture of their hair. Moreau annotated a black chalk study for Oedipus’s body, telling himself to make the figure taller and his thighs longer ("plus haut/ cuisses plus longues") to reach ideal proportions (see Additional Images, fig. 9); on the same sheet is what appears to be an image very close to that of the final Oedipus, but with short hair and a beard, squared for transfer to the canvas. In the squared drawing, the artist was directly quoting an antique source for the male figure. An undated pencil study (see Additional Images, fig. 10) gives an overall presentation of the composition highly similar to The Met’s picture, but shows that the artist first placed the Sphinx’s chalice atop an ornate column with Ionian capitals to the left of the main figures, before switching it to the right side and changing the appearance of the column as well as the urn. (For other studies, see Lacambre 1999, nos. 28-4–5, 28-7–9, 28-10–12, 28-15–18.)
[Jane R. Becker 2016]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): .Gustave Moreau .64.
the artist, Paris (1864; sold on May 1 for Fr 8,000 to Napoleon); Prince Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, Paris (1864–68; sold on February 3, 1868, no. 10709, for Fr 14,000 to Durand-Ruel); [Durand-Ruel, Paris, in partnership with Brame, Paris, 1868; sold on March 6 for Fr 15,000 (to be paid in October 1868) to Herriman]; William H. Herriman, Rome (1868–d. 1921; installed at 93, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, by January 18, 1869)
Paris. Salon. May 1–?, 1864, no. 1388 (as "Œdipe et le sphinx").
Galerie de la société des amis des arts de Bordeaux. "Salon des amis des arts de Bordeaux," 1865, no. 395 [see Dussol 1997].
Paris. Musée du Louvre. "Gustave Moreau," June 1–September 30, 1961, no. 10.
New York. Museum of Modern Art. "Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin," December 4, 1961–February 4, 1962, no. 175.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin," March 2–April 15, 1962, no. 175.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Gustave Moreau," July 16–September 1, 1974, no. 28.
San Francisco. California Palace of the Legion of Honor. "Gustave Moreau," September 14–November 3, 1974, no. 28.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "The Second Empire, 1852–1870: Art in France under Napoleon III," October 1–November 26, 1978, no. VI-93 (lent by the estate of Germain Seligman, New York).
Detroit Institute of Arts. "The Second Empire, 1852–1870: Art in France under Napoleon III," January 15–March 18, 1979, no. VI-93.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "L'art en France sous le Second Empire," May 11–August 13, 1979, no. 261.
Kunsthaus Zürich. "Gustave Moreau: Symboliste," March 14–May 25, 1986, no. 19.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," September 29, 1998–January 4, 1999, no. 28.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," February 13–April 25, 1999, no. 28.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," June 1–August 22, 1999, no. 28.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920," February 4–May 6, 2007, no. 45.
Berlin. Neue Nationalgalerie. "Französische Meisterwerke des 19. Jahrhunderts aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art," June 1–October 7, 2007, unnumbered cat.
Gustave Moreau. Letter to Eugène Fromentin. October 18, 1862 [published in Barbara Wright, "Correspondance d'Eugène Fromentin," Paris, 1995, vol. 2, pp. 1266–67], states that he has been working seriously on this painting for fifteen days.
Léon Lagrange. "Le Salon de 1864." Gazette des beaux-arts 16 (1864), pp. 506–8, ill. opp. p. 506.
F. Aubert. Le Pays (June 13, 1864) [see Sterling and Salinger 1967], likens it to the paintings of the fifteenth century.
Ph[ilippe]. Burty. "La Quinzaine artistique." La Presse (May 9, 1864), p. 3, states that it was acquired on the previous day by Prince Napoléon.
"Old Noll". "Des tendances de l'art contemporain, à l'occasion de l'Exposition des beaux-arts de 1864." Annales de la charité (Revue d'économie chrétienne) 6 (May 1864), pp. 883–902 [reprinted in Lacambre 1997], mentions that the Greek sphinx, half-woman and half-vulture, is represented here, rather than the Egyptian type, who is shown seated; discusses it in relation to Ingres's painting of the same subject, but notes that whereas Ingres presented a modern Oedipus, Moreau has better understood the classical Oedipus.
Edmond About. Salon de 1864. Paris, 1864, pp. 137–42, complains of a certain servility in the execution and of the wooden quality of the figure of Oedipus; appreciates Moreau's departure from tradition in unseating the sphinx from her plinth, but remarks that she is as stiff and expressionless as the seated Egyptian type; comments that Moreau has chosen for the face of the Sphinx the features of a Huret doll; mentions that the landscape was inspired by Moreau's trip to Italy and questions the necessity of the Etruscan vase in the foreground.
Charles Clément. "Exposition de 1864 (Troisiéme article)." Journal des débats politiques et littéraires (May 12, 1864), pp. 1–2, calls the body of the sphinx the best part of the composition; notes that the body of Oedipus is elegant although a bit thin; mentions that the elbow and the knee are badly drawn and that the foot looks deformed; however, concludes that in general the effect of the painting is good and that it does honor to its painter.
Hector de Callias. "Salon de 1864: Les quarante médailles." L'Artiste 1 (May 15, 1864), p. 219, comments that it is more of a study than a painting and notes that it recalls Italian masters such as Raphael.
Jules Claretie. "Salon de 1864: Le salon des refusés." L'Artiste 2 (June 30, 1864), p. 4, discusses the reaction of both the public and artists to it at the Salon; comments that it is drawn like a Mantegna and is as poetic as a Leonardo da Vinci.
Cham. "Une promenade au salon." Le Charivari (1864) [reprinted in Ref. Léger 1920, p. 54], publishes a caricature inspired by it.
Louis Auvray. Exposition des beaux-arts: Salon de 1864. Paris, 1864, pp. 54–57 [see Ref. Sterling and Salinger 1967].
Ph[ilippe]. Burty. "Beaux-Arts." La Presse (May 5, 1864), p. 2.
L'Artiste 1 (June 10, 1864), p. 273.
Théophile Gautier. Le moniteur universel (May 27, 1864), p. 766 [see Ref. Sterling and Salinger 1967].
Paul de Saint-Victor. "Salon de 1864 (Premier article)." La Presse (May 6–7, 1864 [one issue for both days]), p. 2.
A. Cantaloube. "Salon de 1864: La peinture." Nouvelle revue de Paris 3 (June 15, 1864), pp. 602–7, discusses the reaction of artists; remarks that the sphinx has the head and the breast of a virgin; notes that Oedipus expresses agitation of thought and the life of the spirit; comments that details at the bottom of the canvas such as the butterfly and urn serve not only to strengthen this part of the composition, but also serve as emblems to show the contrasts of life.
C. de Sault. "Salon de 1864. (2e article). Oedipe et le sphinx." Le Temps (May 12, 1864), pp. 1–2.
Adrien Paul. "Salon de 1864. La Peinture (5e article)." Le Siècle (June 8, 1864), p. 1.
Martel Caristie. "Salon de 1864." Revue du monde colonial, asiatique et américain; organe politique des deux-mondes 6 (April 1864), pp. 501–2, calls it enigmatic and states that it was painted with "un style non moins fabuleux" (a style no less fabulous) but still calls it a pastiche; states that Moreau would say that his archaizing style stems from the sixteenth-century old masters but faults the artist for servilely copying them instead of following nature only.
Jean Rousseau. "Salon de 1864." Figaro 11 (May 19, 1864), pp. 3–4, describes the picture at length.
Drion. "Salon de 1864." Journal du Loiret (June 8, 1864), p. ? [see Cooke 2003], calls it "un coup de tonnerre qui a éclaté en plein palais de l'Industrie" (a clap of thunder that broke out in the middle of the Palace of Industry).
Théophile Gautier. Le moniteur universel (July 9, 1865) [reprinted in Ref. Girard 1994], comments that Moreau gives a new interpretation of the Oedipus myth, likens the sphinx to a modern courtesan and Oedipus to a type of Greek Hamlet who is faced with the problems of life.
Paul de Saint-Victor. "Salon de 1865." La Presse (May 7, 1865), unpaginated.
Charles Beaurin. "Les Salons de 1864 et de 1865." L'Artiste: Beaux-arts et belles-lettres 1 (1866), pp. 156–57, discusses the picture at length.
Maxime du Camp. Les beaux-arts à l'exposition universelle et aux salons de 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866 & 1867. Paris, 1867, pp. 109–19, praises both the content and the execution, and finds Moreau's interpretation more spiritual than that of Ingres.
Paul Mantz. "Les beaux-arts à l'exposition universelle." Gazette des beaux-arts (October 1867), p. 330.
Ernest Chesneau. Les nations rivales dans l'art. Paris, 1868, pp. 181–99, 203, 206–7, calls it an ideal work because each element of the composition has been thought out and perfectly realized; remarks that it is one of the best pictures in the Salon.
Théophile Gautier. Journal officiel 53 (June 20, 1869) [see Ref. Girard 1997].
T. Thoré. Salons de W. Bürger 1861 à 1868. Vol. 2, Paris, 1870, pp. 14–19, praises the originality of the interpretation but condemns the literary quality, the technique, and the style.
Claude Phillips. "Gustave Moreau." Magazine of Art 8 (1885), p. 230, comments that the sphinx is too small and resembles a wild cat rather than a lioness, but that she has the head of a classical beauty; remarks that the figure of Oedipus suggests not the study of Mantegna or Pollaiuolo but the influence of the Greek canon; mentions that there is a noticeable mannerism in the rendering of the figures that detracts from the "pictorial qualities of the design".
Jules Breton. Nos peintres du siècle. Paris, [189?], p. 178, comments that the nervous and subtle execution of parts of the landscape recalls Fromentin.
[Jules] Castagnary. Salons (1857–1870). Paris, 1892, vol. 1, pp. 196–202, condemns its literary quality and criticizes the details, calling it a pastiche of the Italian Renaissance.
G. W. The Pageant. London, 1897, pp. 5, 13–14, ill.
Ary Renan. Gustave Moreau, 1826–1898. Paris, 1900, pp. 27, 45, 49–52, 131, 133, reproduces an engraving after it.
Odilon Redon. Letter to Mme de Holstein. January 29, 1900 [reprinted in Ref. Redon 1923, p. 38], recalls the deep impression this painting made on him at the Salon of 1864.
Édouard Schuré. "L'Oedipe de Gustave Moreau." La Revue de Paris no. 23 (1900), pp. 617–18, remarks that it has the appearance of an antique bas-relief.
Abbé Loisel. L'inspiration chrétienne du peintre Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1912, p. 28, interprets the theme as man opposed to nature.
Mario Praz. The Romantic Agony. London, 1933, pp. 295–96, remarks that it is the first painting in Moreau's Sphinx series dealing with "the theme of satanic beauty in primitive mythology".
Joseph C. Sloane. French Painting Between the Past and the Present: Artists, Critics, and Traditions, from 1848 to 1870. [reprint 1973]. Princeton, 1951, pp. xii, 171–72, 174–76, fig. 68, notes Moreau's courage in attempting a theme that had been successfully handled by Ingres years before and adds that the main influence was Chassériau, although contemporary critics did not acknowledge this; cites and discusses the critical reception of it at the Salon of 1864; mentions that although critics praised it, they also charged the artist with eclecticism; remarks that its success, in terms of Moreau's career, was short-lived.
Mario Praz. The Romantic Agony. 2nd ed. London, 1954, pp. 295–96.
Bettina Polak. Het Fin-de-Siècle in de Nederlandse Shilderkunst: De symolistische beweging 1890–1900. The Hague, 1955, pp. 38–39, discusses it in a study of the sphinx in the art and literature of the nineteenth century.
Ragnar von Holten. "Oedipe et le sphinx: Gustave Moreau genombrottsverk." Tidskrift för Konstvetenskap: Symbolister 32 (1957), pp. 37–50, ill., mentions that the posture of the Sphinx may be derived from a poem by Heinrich Heine in the "Buch der Lieder".
Ragnar von Holten. L'art fantastique de Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1960, pp. 2–9, 13, fig. 6, remarks that for Moreau, the subject represents not only the fight between good and evil, but also between the sexes; agrees that this painting is eclectic, but comments that in Moreau's search to express his way of thinking, he has completely broken with the academic tradition of Ingres.
Dore Ashton. Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin. Exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art. New York, 1961, pp. 113, 115, 179, no. 175, ill., comments that the transfixed gaze of Oedipus and the Sphinx is characteristic of Moreau "who again and again suggests an ambiguous mirror-image, two aspects, two abstract entities that confront each other and recognize each other all too well"; mentions that mountains commonly threaten the characters in Moreau's mythology and believes that here they have been transformed into towers or thrones, and seem to "symbolize an ideal of ascension".
Charles Sterling and Margaretta M. Salinger. French Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 3, XIX–XX Centuries. New York, 1967, pp. 1–5, ill., mention that Moreau made careful preparations for it, including more than thirty sketches, ten of which are studies of a large bird's wing, which served as a model for the wing of the sphinx, and that there are also two large cartoons; remark that after the Salon Moreau repeated the composition in a number of watercolors and in two paintings that have the appearance of sketches, but are dated May 1864.
Jean Paladilhe. Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1971, pp. 95, 97, 99, 102, 110–11, 137, ill.
Henri Dorra. "The Guesser Guessed: Gustave Moreau's Œdipus." Gazette des beaux-arts 81 (March 1973), pp. 129–140, ill., proposes that the pose of the sphinx and Oedipus is not based on a poem by Heine, but is derived from the Greek etymological meaning of the word sphinx, which is to clutch, embrace, or cling to; remarks that a paper on this subject written by Michel Bréal appeared in 1863, but notes that it is likely that this notion was current before that publication; discusses the symbolic meaning of some of the elements in the picture, particularly the crown and purple cloth which are seen as emblems of political power, the golden laurel, representing official academic honors, and the jewelry of the sphinx, material wealth; attributes autobiographical overtones to these elements; suggests that the prototype of Oedipus could be derived from the design of a Bithynian coin of Nicomedes II depicting Zeus leaning on a staff with an eagle on his right, and comments that Moreau was also probably affected by Renaissance mannerism; concludes that in it the principal "ingredients" of symbolism can be seen.
Lydie Huyghe in René Huyghe. La Relève du réel: la peinture française au XIXe siècle: impressionnisme, symbolisme. Paris, 1974, pp. 267, 297, 452, ill.
Julius Kaplan. Gustave Moreau. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1974, pp. 22–24, 26, 32–33, 41, 53, 80, 129–30, no. 28, ill., remarks that Moreau conceived Oedipus and the Sphinx in terms of a conflict between moral idealism and sensual desire; notes that Moreau supplemented Ingres's prototypes with classical and Persian scenes of confrontations between man and beast; suggests that Moreau borrowed from Michelangelo the static figures whose staring expresssions suggest they are lost in thought or dream; finds the style to be reminiscent of Carpaccio and the synthesis to be influenced by Poussin.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau: With a catalogue of finished paintings, watercolors and drawings. Boston, 1976, pp. 14, 18, 28, 70, 81–85, 94, 110–11, 128, 130, 197, 241, 257, 269 n. 312, pp. 284, 305, no. 64, ill. (color and black and white), discusses a series of watercolors and drawings made for it.
Peter Hahlbrock. Gustave Moreau oder Das Unbehagen in der Natur. Berlin, 1976, pp. 29, 49–54, 91–92, 101–3, 108, 121, 143, 153, 171–72, 174–75, 180–81, no. 36 (overall and detail).
Hans H. Hofstätter. Gustave Moreau: Leben und Werk. 1978, pp. 24, 70–72, 81, colorpl. 9.
Monique Halm-Tisserant. "La sphinx amoureuse: Un schéma grec dans l'œuvre de G. Moreau." Revue des archéologues et historiens d'art de Louvain 14 (1981), pp. 30–68, fig. 2, suggests that the pose and concept of this work was inspired and informed by ancient examples, which Moreau could have seen in the Louvre or been familiar with from his own books.
Reinhold Heller. The Earthly Chimera and the Femme Fatale: Fear of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Art. Exh. cat., David and Alfred Smart Gallery, University of Chicago. Chicago, 1981, p. 12.
Julius Kaplan. The Art of Gustave Moreau: Theory, Style, and Content. PhD diss., Columbia University. Ann Arbor, 1982, pp. 35–44, 183 n. 6, p. 184 nn. 16, 18, 29, 30, pl. 10, discusses the picture, its sources, and studies for it at length.
Roy McMullen. Degas: His Life, Times, and Work. Boston, 1984, p. 107.
Geneviève Lacambre Pierre-Louis Mathieu inGustave Moreau, Symboliste. Ed. Toni Stooss. Exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zürich. Zürich, 1986, pp. 11, 16, 21, 30, 32–33, 37, 39, 70–102, 124–25, 300, 325, no. 19, ill. (color).
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Tout l'œuvre peint de Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1991, pp. 5, 8–9, 68, 87, no. 105, fig. 105, colorpl. VIII, states that Moreau began working on the composition in 1860, but mistakenly remarks that the earliest studies for it date from 1861.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1994, pp. 9, 48, 72–79, 81, 83, 90, 110–11, 132, 139, 191, 264–65, 269, 277 n. 5–6, p. 278 nn. 24–30, p. 280 n. 60, p. 287 n. 63, p. 288 n. 15, 292, ill. (color), states that it is difficult to establish whether Heine's poem from the "Buch der Leider" was a source of inspiration because of the dating of the preparatory sketches.
Michael Fried. Manet's Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s. Chicago, 1996, pp. 10, 164, 308–12, 314–17, 577 nn. 125–26, p. 578 nn. 129, 133, colorpl. 14, observes that it was criticized for its "hard, detailed, linear style of Mantegna and other fifteenth-century Northern Italian masters," but also notes that it may have been the most highly-praised picture at any Salon of the 1860s; mentions that, in the alphabetically arranged Salon, it was in the same room as Manet's "The Dead Christ and the Angels" (MMA 29.100.51) and thus they were compared critically.
Julius Kaplan inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 22, New York, 1996, p. 89.
Dominique Dussol. Art et bourgeoisie: La société des amis des arts de Bordeaux (1851–1939). Bordeaux, 1997, pp. 17, 150, 159, 269.
Geneviève Lacambre. Gustave Moreau maître sorcier. Paris, 1997, pp. 44–45, 108–9, states that a small pencil sketch after Ingres's version of the subject in one of the books in Moreau's library confirms Moreau's knowledge of Ingres's picture.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau: Monographie et nouveau catalogue de l'œuvre achevé. Paris, 1998, pp. 50–51, 150, 190, 238, 294, no. 75, ill. (color and black and white), states that a man named "Doneto" posed for it.
Geneviève Lacambre. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream. Exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris. Chicago, 1999, pp. 2, 16, 75, 77–83 n. 17, p. 84 nn. 20–22, 27, pp. 92, 94, 99, 106, 108, 127, 196, 222, 282, no. 28, ill. (color, overall and detail) [French ed., 1998], observes that Moreau lists our painting in his notebook as no. 53 "Sphinx. Oedipus. A man of mature age wrestling with the enigma of life," the only picture of the subject marked with a cross to indicate that it has been completed; examines our picture within the context of its sources and other versions of the subject to elucidate Moreau's working methods; observes that the canvas was purchased on October 20, 1862 from Ottoz for Fr 30. and sold to Prince Napoleon on May 1, 1864 for Fr 8,000; quotes extensively from letters and press clippings containing reactions to its first exhibition at the Salon of 1864.
Patricia Mathews. Passionate Discontent: Creativity, Gender, and French Symbolist Art. Chicago, 1999, pp. 98, 100, 104, 113–14, fig. 5.11, notes that the painting should be seen alongside his other pictures of sphinxes and Salomes in the context of Symbolist images of the femme fatale, even though it was created earlier; compares it to Alexandre Séon's "The Despair of the Chimera" (1890, Flamand-Charbonnier collection, Paris); states that the placement of the two figures contrasts with the expectation of a "beastly female" who might dominate the male Oedipus.
J.-M. Moret. "Gustave Moreau et l'antiquité." La lettre de la maison de l'Orient 21 (Spring 2000), pp. 4–5, fig. 1, argues that the pose for Oedipus comes from a funerary stele from Athens (Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden).
Peter Cooke. Gustave Moreau et les arts jumeaux: Peinture et littérature au dix-neuvième siècle. Bern, 2003, pp. 53, 55–58, pl. 1, notes the nobility of Moreau's ambitions to achieve the highest ideal of history painting in The Met's picture through an original iconographic conception, the inclusion of mysterious elements, and the choice of a mythological subject; traces the painting's critical reception at the Salon of 1864.
Peter Cooke. "Gustave Moreau's 'Œdipus and the sphinx': archaism, temptation and the nude at the Salon of 1864." Burlington Magazine 146 (September 2004), pp. 609–15, fig. 18.
Atsuko Ogane. La Genèse de la danse de Salomé: L'"Appareil scientifique" et la symbolique polyvalente dans "Hérodias" de Flaubert. Tokyo, 2006, pp. 185–87, 251, colorpl. X.
Geneviève Lacambre inIl Simbolismo da Moreau a Gauguin a Klimt. Exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti. Ferrara, 2007, p. 190.
Kathryn Calley Galitz inThe Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. New York, 2007, pp. 68–69, 243, no. 45, ill. (overall and detail, color and black and white).
Kathryn Calley Galitz inMasterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 73, 286, no. 67, ill. (color and black and white).
Peter Cooke. "Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting." Art Bulletin 90 (September 2008), pp. 394, 399–405, 408, 410–11, 433 n. 33, fig. 7, and ill. on cover (color detail), suggests that it is Moreau's attempt to "rival Ingres"; discusses it in the context of a "clear line of development" in Moreau's paintings between 1864 and 1869, which endeavor "to renew history painting through the application of an antitheatrical aesthetic to mythological subjects, without abandoning narrative".
Scott C. Allan. "Interrogating Gustave Moreau's Sphinx: Myth as Artistic Metaphor in the 1864 Salon." Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 7 (Spring 2008) [http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/spring08/39-spring08/spring08article/110-interrogating-gustave-moreaus-sphinx-myth-as-artistic-metaphor-at-the-1864-salon].
Peter Cooke. "Symbolism, Decadence and Gustave Moreau." Burlington Magazine 151 (May 2009), pp. 312, 316, ill. p. 282, fig. 36 (color, overall and detail).
Guillermo Solana. Lágrimas de Eros. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid, 2009, pp. 32, 277, fig. 8 (color).
Geneviève Lacambre. "A la recherche d'amateurs: l'exemple de la participation du peintre parisien Gustave Moreau aux expositions de province." Marché(s) de l'art en province (1870–1914). Ed. Laurent Houssais and Marion Lagrange. Pessac, 2010, pp. 105–6, 110, 112, discusses its critical reception in Bordeaux in 1865 and the reasons for prince Napoléon's late-hour refusal to lend it to the Universal Exposition of 1867; notes it served as a model for what the artist was capable of achieving in sales.
Peter Cooke. Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism. New Haven, 2014, pp. 2, 15, 28–30, 49–51, 54–57, 62, 66, 68–69, 95, 113, 119–21, 130, 132, 136, 143, 178, 198 nn. 63–65, p. 200 nn. 144–48, p. 201 n. 161, p. 204 n. 29, p. 215 n. 21, p. 216 nn. 26–27, ill. pp. III, 38, fig. 29 (color, overall and detail), discusses the painting in detail with regard to its critical reception at the Salon of 1864, its status as a thematic and stylistic manifesto with regard to history painting, its indebtedness to and attempt to rival Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' "Oedipus Explaining the Riddle of the Sphinx" (1808, Musée du Louvre, Paris), its iconography and symbolism, its role as protest art in reaction to the proliferation of erotic subjects at the Salon, and its influence on Odilon Redon; reviews the literature on it and Moreau's subsequent paintings' relationships to it in terms of an attempt to revive history painting.
Peter Cooke. "Gustave Moreau and Ingres." Burlington Magazine 156 (April 2014), pp. 221–23, fig. 12 (color), discusses Moreau's challenge to Ingres's own version of the subject, comparing the two paintings at length.
Katie Larson. "The Relocation of Spirituality and Rouault's Modernist Transformation of Moreau's Proto-Symbolist Techniques." The Symbolist Roots of Modern Art. Ed. Michelle Facos and Thor J. Mednick. Farnham, England, 2015, pp. 194, 196, 206 n. 6, states that the picture functions as an allegory of man's soul and its temptations; notes Oedipus's "frozen, somnambulistic quality" that disallows access to his interior state.
Patrick Noon inDelacroix and the Rise of Modern Art. Exh. cat., Minneapolis Institute of Art. London, 2015, p. 161.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 437, no. 354, ill. pp. 363, 437 (color).
Average Overall Rating: 3.5
Total Votes: 3921
Ancient Greeks cared deeply about the pursuit of knowledge. Although the truth was often a terrifying concept, they still saw it as a critical virtue. The theater was one way in which the ideas of knowledge and truth were examined.
Many Greek dramatists use the self-realizations of their characters to underscore the themes of their tragedies. Sophocles, for one, uses the character transformation of Oedipus, in tandem with the plot, to highlight the theme of his famous work, Oedipus the King. As Oedipus grows in terrifying self-knowledge, he changes from a prideful, heroic king at the beginning of the play, to a tyrant in denial toward the middle, to a fearful, condemned man, humbled by his tragic fate by the end.
At first, Oedipus appears to be a confident, valiant hero. This is especially true during the situation alluded to at the beginning of the drama, when he solves the Sphinx's riddle. Although Oedipus is not a native Theban, he still chooses to answer the riddle of the Sphinx despite her threat of death to anyone who fails to answer correctly. Only a man like Oedipus, a man possessing tremendous self-confidence, could have such courage. When Oedipus succeeds, freeing the city from the Sphinx's evil reign, he becomes instantly famous and known for his bravery and intelligence. A temple priest reveals the respect the Thebans have for their king when he tells Oedipus, "You freed us from the Sphinx, you came to Thebes and cut us loose from the bloody tribute we had paid that harsh, brutal singer. We taught you nothing, no skill, no extra knowledge, still you triumphed" (44-47). Here, Oedipus' bold actions seem to be a blessing, a special gift from the gods used to benefit the city as a whole. Indeed Oedipus is idealized by the Thebans, yet at times he seems to spite the gods, assuming authority that normally belongs to them. For example, he pompously tells the Chorus, which implores the gods for deliverance from the city plague, "You pray to the gods? Let me grant your prayers" (245). Yet the people accept, even long for, this language from their king. Since the gods don't seem to give them aid, they place their hopes in Oedipus, this noble hero who has saved Thebes in the past and pledges to save it again.
Soon, however, Oedipus' character changes to a man in denial-a man more like a tyrant than a king-as he begins to solve the new riddle of Laius' death. A growing paranoia grips Oedipus when Jocasta recounts the story of her husband's murder, leading the king to suspect his own past actions. He remarks, absentmindedly, "Strange, hearing you just now . . . my mind wandered, my thoughts racing back and forth" (800-02). Yet Oedipus is not quick to blame himself for the plague of the city-indeed he tries to place the burden onto others as he continues his investigation, blindly trusting his own superior ability while ignoring the damaging evidence that surrounds him. For example, when Tiresias accuses Oedipus of being the murderer, the king takes the counter-offensive, actually accusing Tiresias of the murder when he asserts, "You helped hatch the plot, you did the work, yes, short of killing him with your own hands . . ." (394-96). Similarly, he blames Creon for conspiracy and treason, charging, "I see it all, the marauding thief himself scheming to steal my crown and power!" (597-98). In this way, Oedipus chooses to attack the messenger while disregarding the message. Besides spiting the prophet, Oedipus also fuels the wrath of the gods, who vest their divine wisdom in Tiresias. The Chorus underscores the vengeance of the gods when it warns, "But if any man comes striding, high and mighty, in all he says and does, no fear of justice, no reverence for the temples of the gods-let a rough doom tear him down, repay his pride, breakneck, ruinous pride!" (972-77). Here, Sophocles portrays Oedipus as a tyrant of sorts; indeed the peoples' greatest blessing has become their worst curse.
Lastly, Oedipus becomes a man humbled with the pain and dejection of knowing the truth of reality as the overwhelming evidence forces him to admit his tragic destiny. Sophocles shows the sudden change in his protagonist's persona when Oedipus condemns himself, saying, "I stand revealed at last-cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!" (1309-11). Yet the transformation of Oedipus' character is most clearly demonstrated when he chooses to gouge out his eyes. Now, finally seeing his horrible fate, he makes himself physically blind like Tiresias, the true seer told he was blind to the truth. Oedipus furthers Sophocles' sight metaphor when he defends his decision to humble himself through blindness: "What good were eyes to me? Nothing I could see could bring me joy" (1473-74). Consequently, Oedipus can no longer be called a tyrant, let alone a king, after being humiliated in this way, unable to see or even walk without assistance. His attitude toward Creon also seems dramatically altered when the new king approaches Oedipus, who implores the audience: "Oh no, what can I say to him? How can I ever hope to win his trust? I wronged him so, just now, in every way. You must see that-I was so wrong, so wrong" (1554-57). In this way, Oedipus, who greatly humbles himself before Creon and the rest of Thebes, completely changes his demeanor for the third time in the play.
This character transformation coincides with several other key themes of the work. First, as the play progresses, Oedipus gradually leaves his ignorant bliss, eventually learning his awful fate. Here, Sophocles raises the question, is the painful knowledge of truth more important than the happiness of naivete? He seems to say yes. Yet Sophocles is not simply referring to the fictional character of Oedipus; Oedipus the King was intended to reflect the nature of the Athenian rulers of the time. Like Oedipus, these rulers were bold and daring, known for their intelligence and heroism. But they were also known for their arrogance and their "risk it all" attitudes. On one hand, they saw themselves as protectors of the city, while at the same time they were unable to defend themselves as individuals.
Similarly, fifth century Athenians struggled over many religious issues. As humanism grew in Athens, many citizens, particularly those in leadership positions, saw themselves as increasingly independent of the gods. They questioned whether their lives were results of fate or free will. Though Jocasta initially believes that fate-namely, oracles and prophecies-means nothing, she later changes her tune when she realizes that her divine prophecy has come true. Oedipus, the epitome of human intellect, also challenges the gods; yet by the play's conclusion it is clear that the gods have won out. In this way, Sophocles asserts that the gods are more powerful than man, that there's a limit to human ability and reason.
Lastly, Oedipus the King serves to explain the causes of human suffering. Though Oedipus' fate is determined, the reader still feels sympathy for the tragic hero, believing that somehow he doesn't deserve what ultimately comes to him. Here, Sophocles attributes, at least partially, human suffering to the mere will of the gods.