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100 Best Paintings in New York

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Gustave Moreau: Oedipus and the Sphinx - 1864

New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The tale of Oedipus has most of the classic ingredients one would expect of one of the Greek myths: tragedy, cruelty, mistaken identity, mysterious monsters, and, underlying it all, a Delphic prophecy wreaking a terrible burden on the hero.

Oedipus was the son of King Laius of Thebes and his queen, Jocasta. He was abandoned on a mountain as a new-born baby by his father who had heard a prophecy that his son would kill him. However the baby was found by a shepherd who took him to Corinth where the king of that city raised the child as one of his own. When the oracle at Delphi told Oedipus that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he determined to leave Corinth, oblivious that he had been adopted. While traveling toward Thebes he met a man on a narrow road; a dispute ensued regarding right of way which ended with Oedipus killing the stranger – unwittingly fulfilling the first part of the prophecy as the other party in the altercation was King Laius. Continuing on the road to Thebes, Oedipus encountered the monstrous Sphinx who had held the city in its thrall, patrolling the roads leading to the town, killing any traveler who could not answer a riddle.* The gallant Oedipus solved the riddle and in a despairing rage the Sphinx killed herself. The city, overjoyed to be free of the monster, gave the vacant throne to the heroic newcomer as well as the hand of the widowed queen Jocasta, thereby completing the Delphic prophecy. The couple had four children but when they discovered the truth, Jocasta killed herself and Oedipus blinded himself.

Like Ingres before him, Moreau has chosen to represent the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx and like Ingres he has given us a curiously anodyne monster – her body resembles a cross between a greyhound and very small female lion, her beautifully painted wings are the size of one of the smaller eagles but her breasts and face are those of a very pretty young woman whose blond hair, carefully coiffured in the latest Parisian style, is held in place by an elegant tiara. No doubt her claws, which may be penetrating the flesh of the naked Oedipus, could cause intense pain but one cannot help wondering if she really represents the necessary physical threat required of a marauding monster, notwithstanding the presence of assorted body parts – the remnants of unlucky travellers who preceded Oedipus – which litter the rocks in the foreground.

However, it is the psychological interchange which is interesting. The Sphinx holds Oedipus in an intense silent stare, as if she is in the process of hypnotising him. The brooding sky heightens the mysterious tension. Perhaps this is her trick – she doesn’t need to use physical might, relying more on the force of her will. She is the paradigm for Moreau’s stable of powerful, dangerous females who seem to dominate his languid and somewhat androgynous males.

Moreau spent several years working on this canvas, making many preparatory drawings, a process which was not unusual – his perfectionism meant that he often held on to his compositions, sometimes for decades, constantly re-working them and adding detail. When it was eventually exhibited at the Salon in 1864 Oedipus and the Sphinx met with considerable acclaim, winning a medal and the admiration of Prince Napoleon-Jérôme who later purchased it. In short, this painting established Moreau’s reputation, and despite a critical reaction against him later in the 1860s and a somewhat reclusive reaction to this criticism on his part, he exerted a considerable influence on later art movements such as Symbolism and Surrealism as well as Neo-Impressionism and Fauvism through his pupil Henri Matisse.

    * What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon and on three legs in the evening? Man – in infancy he crawls on all fours, when an adult he walks upright on two legs and in old age he needs the support of a stick.

Image: Wikimedia Commons


Contemporary Works

1864 Richard Dadd: The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke, London, Tate

1865 James A. M. Whistler: Harmony in Blue and Silver: Trouville, Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Further Paintings of Interest

Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830

Eugène Delacroix


Paul Gauguin

Jupiter and Semele

Gustave Moreau