The Psychology of the Riddle: Oedipus and the Sphinx

François-Émile Ehrmann (1833-1910), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1903), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 106.3 cm, Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), Strasbourg, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The tragic story of Oedipus, his murder of his father, marriage to his mother, and subsequent agony, has been popular in plays and literary works since classical times. Perhaps because of its complexity and incestuous theme, it was hardly painted before 1800. As most art prior to the nineteenth century was made for patrons, it is difficult to envisage any patron commissioning a painting, say, showing Oedipus marrying his mother, or putting his eyes out.

The one episode in the story which has been painted repeatedly – although still only after 1800 – is Oedipus’ encounter with the Sphinx, which is mercifully incest-free and relatively positive in nature. It has led to some of the most psychologically insightful paintings too.

Having been told by the oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus fled Corinth and travelled to the city of Thebes. On the way, he met Laius, with whom he quarreled, fought, and killed. Although he did not know it at the time, Laius was the father of Oedipus.

When he neared Thebes, Oedipus came across the Sphinx, a ferocious beast with the head and bust of a woman, and the body of a big cat (usually a lion). The Sphinx had effectively put Thebes under siege, by refusing to let anyone past unless they successfully answered her riddle. Those who failed were killed, possibly by being flung from the nearby cliff, although some appear to have ended up providing the Sphinx with her next meal instead.

The riddle of the Sphinx was: “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?”

Oedipus correctly guessed a person (crawling infant, adult, and the elderly walking with a stick), causing the Sphinx to self-destruct, probably by throwing herself from the cliff.

Oedipus carried on into the city, where he was welcomed as a hero, married its queen, Jocasta, who was (unknown to him at the time) his mother, became king, and had children who were his half-brothers and -sisters.

Two artists, both living in Rome at the time, tackled this story at almost exactly the same time.

François-Xavier Fabre (1766–1837), Oedipus and the Sphinx (c 1806-08), oil on canvas, 50.2 × 66 cm, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

François-Xavier Fabre’s Oedipus and the Sphinx from about 1806-08 takes a traditional narrative approach, keeping distance between the two figures, and those figures from the viewer. Although their gazes are locked intently, the tension of the moment is low.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808, 1827), oil on canvas, 189 x 144 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Photo courtesy of the Art Renewal Center, via Wikimedia Commons.

JAD Ingres’ first version was a full-length figure study of Oedipus, which he sent from Rome in 1808 when he was studying there following his success in the Prix de Rome. It had a lukewarm reception, and in 1825, he decided to rework it, and had the canvas enlarged to accommodate this more elaborate version which now hangs in the Louvre.

He has moved in much closer to the two figures, and has moved them closer together, so that they are not just wrestling with the Sphinx’s riddle, but in a close-quarter, eyeball-to-eyeball battle of minds. The revised version was shown at the Salon in 1827, where it was well-received.

Later, probably in 1864, Ingres painted a reversed copy (below), which is now in the Walters. The Sphinx’s head is turned away, and almost invisible in the deep shadow of the cave. Although still a fine painting, it lacks the intense confrontation which makes his original so powerful.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1808), oil on canvas, 105.5 x 87 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1864, Gustave Moreau was bold enough to try his own version of this story; given the relatively recent success of Ingres’ work, this was a very risky venture.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), oil on canvas, 206.4 x 104.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau undoubtedly knew Ingres’ painting as it had been shown in 1827. He reversed the positions of Oedipus and the Sphinx, and brought them so close together that they are right in one another’s face, staring one another out. The Sphinx is already latched onto what she assumes will be her next and delectable young meal. She promises to be femme fatale for the young man.

Oedipus knows that he cannot falter. A false guess, even a slight quaver in his voice, and this beautiful but lethal beast will be at his throat. His left hand clenches his javelin, knowing that what he is about to say should save his life, and spare the Thebans. He will then no longer be pinned with his back to the rock, and the threat of the Sphinx will be gone.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Oedipus and the Sphinx (detail) (1864), oil on canvas, 206.4 x 104.8 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau’s painting was a huge success, although by their comments many of the critics were unable to read it in its entirety.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Enigma (souvenirs de 1870) (1871), oil on canvas, 128 x 194 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Not long after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, in which he had served in the National Guard, Gustave Doré committed some of the apocalytic visions of the siege of Paris to canvas, in his The Enigma (souvenirs de 1870), and two other major paintings, all made using grisaille, the greys normally used to model tones in traditional layered technique.

This shows the shattered and still-burning remains of the city in the background, bodies of some of the Prussian artillery in the foreground, and two mythical beasts silhouetted in an embrace. The winged creature is female, and probably represents France, who clasps the head of the Sphinx, who personifies the forces which determine victory or defeat. The enigmatic question would then relate to the Franco-Prussian War, and the reasons for France’s defeat.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), The Question, the Sphinx (1875), pencil on paper, 48 x 41.5 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

With its disturbing sexual implications, the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement on the other side of the Channel seem to have been keen to avoid this story. However, Dante Gabriel Rossetti drew his account in The Question, the Sphinx in 1875. Oedipus and the Sphinx are as close, but by turning their bodies more to face the viewer, he has lost much of the psychological tension. The other figures and landscape tend to distract too.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), oil on canvas, 40.6 x 71.1 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young, San Francisco, CA. The Athenaeum.

Across an even greater body of water, the Atlantic Ocean, and Elihu Vedder painted his The Sphinx of the Seashore in 1879. She looks lonely, still waiting for Oedipus to come, a beautiful but clearly dangerous beast in an alien landscape, surrounded by the skulls of her victims.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Triumphant Sphinx (The Victorious Sphinx) (1886), watercolour on paper, 33 x 20 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Moreau revisited the story during his later personal losses and grief. The Triumphant Sphinx, or The Victorious Sphinx (1886) explores the possibility of Oedipus answering the riddle incorrectly, and proving femme fatale to him as well.

Armand Point (1861–1932), Oedipus and the Sphinx (c 1890), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Other artists took up the story too. Here, Armand Point’s Oedipus and the Sphinx (c 1890) tries out a combination of ideas taken from Ingres and Moreau. Its eye contact is weak, though, and there seems little tension as a result.

Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Mystical Knight (Oedipus and the Sphinx) (1894), pastel, dimensions and location not known. Image by, via Wikimedia Commons.

The overtly symbolist Odilon Redon took the Sphinx into a mediaeval court in his pastel painting of Mystical Knight or Oedipus and the Sphinx (1894).

Franz von Stuck (1863–1928), The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895), oil on canvas, 160 x 144.8 cm, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

Franz von Stuck’s The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895) was the next major landmark in the development of this story, bringing the pair into a deadly embrace and kiss. Gone is the gaze, replaced by intimate physical contact, with the Sphinx clearly taking the upper hand.

Fernand Khnopff (1858–1921), Art, or Caresses (1896), oil on canvas, 50.5 x 151 cm, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year, and presumably influenced by von Stuck, Fernand Khnopff painted his Art, or Caresses (1896). Oedipus is now an androgynous youth holding an ornate caduceus (less the intertwined serpents) in his right hand. His nipples appear to have been tattooed, or bear jewellery, and he is bare to the waist. He stands cheek-to-cheek with a beautiful young Sphinx with the body of a leopard. Behind her is a wooden booth, which has non-Roman characters or ideograms written on it.

Jan Toorop (1858-1928), Souls around the Sphinx (1892-97), ink, pencil and embossed drawing, carved with a pointed instrument in the surface of the paper, dimensions not known, Gemeentenmuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands. Image by Vassil, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the final years of the century, Jan Toorop did away with Oedipus, in his Souls around the Sphinx (1892-97), and considered an intermediate between the Egytian and Theban Sphinxes.

François-Émile Ehrmann (1833-1910), Oedipus and the Sphinx (1903), oil on canvas, 76.5 × 106.3 cm, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), Strasbourg, France. Wikimedia Commons.

François-Émile Ehrmann’s Oedipus and the Sphinx (1903) is a return to the intense one-on-one conflict outside Thebes. His is the most close-cropped image, and the most flagrant battle between the pair. The claws of the Sphinx’s right arm are bared, ready to sink themselves into Oedipus’ flesh; he grasps a vicious knife as if ready to retaliate. The psychological fight has been expressed in raw physical terms, although their gazes are still locked.

Georg von Rosen (1843–1923), The Sphinx (1887-1907), oil on canvas, 280 × 365 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Georg von Rosen’s grim portrait of The Sphinx (1887-1907) completes my series. Alone again, maybe the Sphinx did get the better of Oedipus after all. She glowers menacingly at the viewer, with a large patch of congealed blood at the far right of the rocky ledge.

As with Salome before, the story seems to be changing, and is now centred on the femme fatale.