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Oedipus and the Sphinx in Art

"Oedipus and the Sphinx" by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Louvre Museum

Oedipus and the Sphinx in Art

Many famous painters have captured the episode of the encounter between Oedipus and the Sphinx.

  • “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Louvre Museum
  • “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Walters Art Museum
  • “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Gustave Moreau – Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • “Oedipus and the Sphinx” by François-Émile Ehrmann – Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres – Louvre Museum

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres depicts Oedipus explaining the riddle of the Sphinx.

Oedipus was a tragic hero in Greek mythology. Oedipus accidentally fulfilled a prophecy in which he kills his father and unknowingly marries his mother. As part of his journey, which brings disaster to his city and family, Oedipus encountered a Sphinx.

The Sphinx would stop all travelers and ask them a riddle. If the travelers did not answer the riddle correctly, they would be killed and eaten. If the answers were correct, they would be free to continue on their journey. The riddle was:

“What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly, and, having heard Oedipus’ answer, the Sphinx allowed him to continue his journey. Oedipus answered:

“Man: as an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs, and in old age, he uses a ‘walking’ stick.” 

Ingres began this painting in Rome, working in a studio on the grounds of the Villa Medici, in 1806. Ingres retained the Figure of Oedipus in his studio for years. Around 1825 he decided to rework it to turn what was mainly a figure study into a more developed narrative scene.

Ingres enlarged the canvas, to create a dramatic contrast between the brightly illuminated landscape seen in the distance, and the shadows that envelop the Sphinx. Ingres modified the pose of the Sphinx and added the human remains seen in the lower-left. In 1827 Ingres exhibited the finished work in the Salon, where it was well-received.

The painting is signed and dated 1808 on the lower left rock.

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

  • Title:                   Oedipus and the Sphinx
  • Artist:                 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
  • Created:             1808
  • Media:                Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:       Height: 189 cm (74.4″); Width: 144 cm (56.6″)
  • Type:                   Mythological Art
  • Museum:            Louvre Museum

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“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique – Walters Art Museum

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres - Oedipus and the Sphinx

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres  – Walters Art Museum

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique depicts the Sphinx as it grimaces in horror as Oedipus solves her riddle. A Shinx is a mythical creature, part lion, part woman.

Ingres frequently repeated the subjects of his paintings, first depicted this story at the beginning of his career, and returned to it several times, making variations in the composition, such as reversing the direction in which the figures faced.

In 1864 Ingres painted this third version of Oedipus and the Sphinx, smaller than the first version, which reverses the composition and varies many details.

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

  • Title:                     Oedipus and the Sphinx
  • Artist:                   Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
  • Created:               1864
  • Media:                  Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:        Height: 105.5 cm (41.5″); Width: 87 cm (34.2″)
  • Type:                     Mythological Art
  • Museum:              Walters Art Museum

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“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Gustave Moreau

"Oedipus and the Sphinx" by Gustave Moreau

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Gustave Moreau

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Gustave Moreau depicts Oedipus meeting the Sphinx on his journey between Thebes and Delphi. Oedipus must answer the Sphinx’s riddle correctly to pass. Failure means his death. Oedipus was the first to answer the riddle correctly, and, having heard Oedipus’ answer, the Sphinx was astounded and killed herself by throwing herself into the sea. Oedipus thereby won the freedom of the Thebans, the kingdom of that city, and a wife Jocasta, who it was later revealed was his mother.

Unlike Ingres’ version, where Oedipus appears as the dominant figure with the Sphinx on the defensive and partly obscured, in Moreau’s version, the Sphinx is on the offensive. Art critics have given the intense gaze shared between the two many psychological interpretations.

Gustave Moreau (1826 – 1898) was a significant figure in the French Symbolist movement, whose main emphasis was the illustration of biblical and mythological figures. Moreau’s paintings appealed to the imaginations of Symbolist writers and artists.

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by Gustave Moreau

  • Title:                      Oedipus and the Sphinx
  • Artist:                    Gustave Moreau
  • Created:                1864
  • Media:                   Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:         Height: 206.4 cm (81.2″); Width: 104.8 cm (41.2″)
  • Type:                     Mythological Art
  • Museum:              Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

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“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by François-Émile Ehrmann

François-Émile Ehrmann, Oedipus and the Sphinx

“Oedipus and the Sphinx” by François-Émile Ehrmann

  • Title:                      Oedipus and the Sphinx
  • Artist:                    Gustave Moreau
  • Created:                1903
  • Media:                   Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:         Height: 76.5 cm (30.1″); Width: 106.3 cm (41.8″)
  • Type:                      Mythological Art
  • Museum:               Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

Oedipus

Oedipus was a mythical Greek King of Thebes. The story of Oedipus is the subject of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, which is followed by Oedipus at Colonus and then Antigone. Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama:

  • the flawed nature of humanity; and
  • an individual’s role in the course of destiny in a harsh universe.

Oedipus was born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta. The King wished to thwart the prophecy, so he ordered a shepherd to leave Oedipus to die on a mountainside. The shepherd, however, took pity on the baby and passed him to another shepherd who gave Oedipus to another King to be raised as his own.

Oedipus learned from the Oracle at Delphi of the prophecy that he would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. However, he was unaware of his true parentage and believing that he was fated to murder his parents, so he left his adoptive parents.

On his way to Thebes, he met an older man and killed him in a quarrel. Continuing to Thebes, he found that the King of the city, King Laius had been recently killed. The city was also at the mercy of the Sphinx. Oedipus answered the monster’s riddle correctly, defeating it and winning the throne of the dead King. He also won the hand in marriage of the King’s widow, Jocasta.

Years later, to end a plague on Thebes, Oedipus searched to find who had killed King Laius and discovered that he was responsible. Jocasta, upon realizing that she had married her son, hanged herself. Oedipus then seized two pins from her dress and blinded himself with them.

The legend of Oedipus has been retold in many versions and was used by Sigmund Freud to name and give mythic precedent to the Oedipus complex.

Sphinx

A sphinx is a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. In Greek mythology, a Sphinx has the head of a woman, the haunches of a lion, and the wings of a bird. A Shinx is treacherous and merciless.

Unlike the Greek sphinx, the Egyptian Sphinx is typically shown as a man. The Egyptian Sphinx was viewed as benevolent, but having a ferocious strength. Both were thought of as guardians, and often flank the entrances to temples.

In European decorative art, the Sphinx enjoyed a significant revival during the Renaissance. Sphinx depictions are generally associated with architectural structures such as royal tombs or temples. The oldest known Sphinx was found near Körtik Tepe, Turkey, and was dated to 9,500 BCE.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Ingres was a French Neoclassical painter who thought of himself as a painter of history and who today is highly regarded for his many portraits.

Critics often found his style bizarre and archaic. However, his expressive distortions of form and space make him a necessary precursor of modern art. His work influenced Picasso and Matisse and other modernists.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

  • Artist:                 Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
  • Born:                 1780 – Montauban, Languedoc, France
  • Died:                 1867 (aged 86) – Paris, France
  • Movement:       Neoclassicism

A Tour of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

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“Is there anyone among the great men who have not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.”
– Ingres

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Photo Credit 1) Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art / Public domain; Gustave Moreau / CC0

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