Gustave Moreau - The Sphinx

by Frauke Maria Petry


According to Greek mythology, the Sphinx is a man-eating demon in the form of a hybrid of a woman and a winged lion. She plays a role especially in the story of Oedipus: the oracle of Delphi prophesies to Oedipus' parents that the boy will murder his father and marry his mother. As a result, they give him up for adoption. When the young adolescent meets a man while traveling, he slays him in an argument. This man was none other than his father.

Oedipus then arrives at the city of Thebes, at the gates of which the Sphinx stands guard on a rock. She gives a riddle to all who pass by. But whoever does not solve the question "It is four-footed in the morning, two-footed at noon and three-footed in the evening - What is it?" will be eaten by it. Since Oedipus recognizes the solution in the life phases of man, the Sphinx plunges into the abyss. As a reward for liberating the city, Oedipus receives the hand of the widowed queen - his mother.

The Sphinx has been the subject of art for centuries, but in the 19th century it became associated with women's sexuality as a powerful female demon of death. In symbolism, it became an emblem of female lust and woman a messenger of disaster - not least a symbol of sexual sin. Only Oedipus, endowed with strong and secure masculinity, knows how to avert the threat. In addition to the language of signs as a mirror of the soul and dreams, the art movement strives for the intrinsic value of color. Gustave Moreau is considered the father of French symbolism. He also painted the Sphinx in 1886 according to the new iconography :

Proud and powerful, the woman-demon rises above the rocky landscape with crown and wings set high. Her gaze wanders impassively into the distance. Her full, classically beautiful breasts are brightly lit, emphasizing her sexual dominance. With her paws she claws into the bloodied upper arm of a youth. While nothing is seen of Oedipus, the fate of his predecessors becomes just too pointed. For like Christi's corpse, the man's body writhes brightly lit in the center of the picture's action - around him the corpse-pale body parts of his fellow sufferers along the ledge. Moreau paints the sphinx several times, but here he refers to a poem by Heinrich Heine (1839) in the composition and design of the picture. In it, the love of a man for a woman becomes the figure of the sphinx in the artistic imagination. The poet describes the feeling as enigmatic and breathtaking. Thus, Moreau also understands the sphinx as a love encounter with the opposite sex. The sphinx's haughtiness corresponds to a masked disappointment in a desiring man's inability to solve the riddle of love for a woman.


The new symbolic language to the sphinx in the art of the 19th century is not surprising. Because at the same time the first emancipation efforts of women begin. In their demands for equal treatment, they appear more dominant than ever, since they pose a threat to male supremacy. The femme fatale (mischief-bringing woman) therefore becomes a popular motif in European art and literature in the form of various female figures. Proxies are often sexually liberated women who defy traditional notions of role assignment. Paradoxically, these figures become a mirror surface of female emancipation and male fantasies of violence and sexuality. Moreau and his contemporaries shifted the battle of the sexes to another level and reinterpreted subjects from myth and religion in a contemporary way.


Gustave Moreau - The Sphinx

Oil on canvas, 1886, Clemens-Sels-Museum in Neuss, Germany