Gustave Moreau - Oedipus and the Sphinx

by Alexandra Tuschka


A creature blocks the way to Thebes. It poses a riddle to everyone who passes by. Only those who can answer it may pass. Obviously something that the man, of whom we can only make out sections, did not succeed in doing. Possibly this one was even a king, whose crown and red velvet dress we can still recognize. 

Oedipus, however, dares and ascends to the monster. It is a sphinx. A creature with a woman's head and torso, a lion's torso, eagle's wings and a snake's tail - a hybrid being. She asks him: 

"It is quadrupedal in the morning, bipedal at noon, and tripedal in the evening. Of all creatures, it alone varies in the number of its feet; but just when it moves the most feet, strength and swiftness are least in it." Oedipus replies, "It is man, he walks on all fours when he is an infant, as an adult he walks on two legs, and in old age he uses a stick to help as a third leg." Instantly, the Sphinx throws himself into the depths. As a reward, Oedipus becomes king of Thebes and marries Iocaste and thus unknowingly his own mother. The Oracle of Delphi thus fulfills a prophecy pronounced many years ago. 


Here you can see the scene in which the Sphinx asks Oedipus her riddle. She makes intense eye contact and presses herself against his body. She thus "presses" him in the literal sense. Only the chlamys he wears prevents direct physical contact. Oedipus, however, has no fear. He has confidently placed his lance on the ground. Already laurel leaves can be seen on him as a sign of victory. And the butterfly that rises next to the richly decorated chalice also refers to eternal life and thus his victory. In the eyes of the sphinx, however, there is slight despair. The sphinx is not shown with a seductive character just by chance. Her pointed chest and pretty face in combination with the brash and aggressive posture take on elements of a "famme fatale". The plum on her side can be interpreted as a hidden symbol of female sexuality, since this fruit was so taken up in the Occident because of its plumpness and cleft on the side. 


In a diary, Moreau describes the pictorial theme as one of male victory over a female monster, shown here with attractive attributes. This theme of gender recurs in his works such as his Medea or Orpheus. If this work is still by nudity and composition to be attributed to classicism, Moreau develops increasingly in the style of symbolism. 


The work refers to the well-known predecessor of his Landesvettern Ingres, which shows the confrontation Oedipus with the enigma in a rocky cave. This work was also seen in Paris, as well as the one shown here, which was awarded in 1864 at the Salon in Paris. None other than Prince Napoleon acquired this painting.


Gustave Moreau - Oedipus and the Sphinx

Oil on canvas, 1864, 206.4 × 104.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York


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