Gustave Moreau and Symbolism: Oedipus and the Sphinx

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.

Three times the aspiring artist Gustave Moreau had tried to turn his new concept for history painting into a canvas for the Salon, and had to abandon. Over the winter of 1863-64 he made a fourth attempt in a painting which took the next Salon by storm and established his reputation and career: Oedipus and the Sphinx. Over the next thirty years, Moreau followed that up in paintings which came to inspire the Symbolist movement.

Was Moreau a Symbolist, or the father of Symbolism? That’s the question I’m going to consider in this and two further articles looking at three of his major works. Tomorrow’s will consider his paintings of Salome from around 1876, and next week I’ll look at his last masterpiece, Jupiter and Semele, from 1895.

Moreau wasn’t the first to tackle the powerful story of Oedipus and the Sphinx in paint; it already had an established history, but early in the nineteenth century two French painters living in Rome had depicted it at 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 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.

In 1808 JAD Ingres, the young winner of the Prix de Rome, sent back to Paris a full-size figure study of Oedipus. In 1825 he decided to rework that painting, having the canvas enlarged, and turning it into this more elaborate narrative work now in the Louvre: a painting which Moreau must have been familiar with. An earlier oil study, now in the National Gallery in London, was unlikely to have been accessible, and a later reversed copy (with significant differences in its details) wasn’t commissioned or painted until 1864; that work is now in the Walters.

Ingres’ 1827 version was very well received when it was shown at the Salon that year.

Moreau had decided that he was going to paint a new type of history painting from which he would remove what he saw as theatricality, and produced his startlingly original version. Just as his Oedipus is seen to be staring out the fearsome sphinx, so Moreau was visibly challenging his seniors.

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.

Both Ingres’ and Moreau’s paintings show the same scene, from Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King. The sphinx had effectively put the ancient Greek city of Thebes under siege, by sitting outside and refusing to let anyone pass unless they answered a riddle correctly. Those who failed to do that it killed by strangulation. When Oedipus arrived, intending to enter Thebes, the sphinx asked him “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?”

Oedipus solved this in his answer of humans, who crawl when a baby, walk on two feet as an adult, then walk with a stick when old. The defeated sphinx then threw itself into the sea below, Oedipus entered Thebes, was awarded the throne of Thebes in return for destroying the sphinx, and married its queen Jocasta, who turned out to be his mother.

Moreau’s painting contains a potentially narrative scene with elaborate and quite intricate symbols, and is painted in an archaic style which has generally been referred to as resembling that of Andrea Mantegna.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Original idea for Oedipus and the Sphinx (1861), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Several earlier preparatory drawings have survived, including this quite mature watercolour from 1861. Being completely devoid of symbols, but very close to the final composition, it suggests that Moreau didn’t view the symbols as being essential to the appreciation of his painting. This was just as well, as the reviews published after the Salon reveal that, at the time, few read its symbols successfully.

Is this just a narrative painting with symbols, or is it a point of departure from traditional history painting? To meet the criteria for narrative, it must refer to two or more moments in the story, something accomplished by the inclusion of the body parts at the foot of the canvas. Those refer to the track record of the sphinx killing those who have been unsuccessful in answering its riddles. There is also one potential forward reference, in the distant glimpse of Thebes beyond the chasm in the rock at the lower left.

Classical narrative principles would then have the story told by facial expression and body language, at a ‘pregnant moment’.

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.

The apparently emotionless faces of Oedipus and the sphinx are not an attempt to reject facial expression as a narrative tool. In fact, they confirm its value. The pair are engaged in staring intently into one another’s eyes, in the way that poker players might, almost eyeball to eyeball. The most plausible moment to be shown here is the brief interval between the sphinx asking its riddle, and Oedipus answering it.

The sphinx has already latched onto the front of what it comfortably assumes is going to be another, rather delectable victim. Its forelegs are ready to reach up and strangle him once he guesses the wrong answer, and its hindlegs are ready to unsheath claws and walk up, burying those claws in his abdominal flesh. The sphinx is ready to prove itself as a real femme fatale for Oedipus.

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.

Around this central narrative core, Moreau feeds us symbolic morsels which supplement that main course, but do not supplant it. Behind Oedipus is a bay tree, sacred to Apollo, representing man’s highest achievements; behind the sphinx is a fig tree, a traditional symbol of sin. The small polychrome column at the right is topped by a cinerary urn, symbolising death, and above it is a butterfly, representing the soul. Ascending the column is a snake, again associated with death, and through the biblical serpent, with sin.

Did Moreau avoid the theatrical narrative which he set out to remove from history painting? There was no action to be shown in this story, as the whole point of the story was that Oedipus dodged the action by answering the riddle correctly. The moment shown is the story’s crux, climax, and potentially its peripeteia, no less. So it was Moreau’s choice of story which determined whether he avoided showing action, in this case.

The following year (1865), Moreau showed two paintings at the Salon. One was a tribute to his friend Théodore Chasseriau which he had started in 1856, the other a serious attempt to follow up the success of Oedipus and the Sphinx in his Jason.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Jason (1865), oil on canvas, 204 × 115 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The name Jason refers to Jason of Golden Fleece and Argonauts fame, a series of swashbuckling adventures which offer many opportunities for theatrical narrative painting. Moreau avoids them all, and shows us a static Jason, with Medea stood behind him, not a Golden Fleece in sight. Instead of providing narrative, the artist offers us symbols as clues to what might be going on.

The broad outline of Jason’s story is simple. When he reached Colchis, he underwent a series of trials imposed by King Aeëtes, culminating in Jason’s victory over the dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece. These were accomplished with the help of Medea, the King’s daughter, in return for a promise of marriage.

In spite of her odd omission from the title of the painting, the almost naked woman behind Jason is Medea, the sorceress who has fallen in love with the hero. The ram’s head at the top of the pillar on the left signifies the Golden Fleece, and the dragon which guarded it is shown as the eagle on which Jason is standing, with the broken tip of his javelin embedded in it. This is the more confusing, as in the original story the dragon was put to sleep by one of Medea’s potions, rather than being killed with a javelin.

Yet Medea holds a vial in her right hand, and her body is swathed with the poisonous hellebore plant, one of the standard tools of witchcraft. These may allude to Jason’s future rejection of Medea and her poisoning of his replacement bride, but there is a lot of story between this moment and that later episode, so that is speculative and hardly clarified by the painting.

Moreau provided some clues to his intentions in this painting, in the almost illegible inscriptions on the two phylacteries wound around the column. These bear the Latin:
nempe tenens quod amo gremioque in Iasonis haerens
per freta longa ferar; nihil illum amplexa timebo

(Nay, holding that which I love, and resting in Jason’s arms, I shall travel over the long reaches of the sea; in his safe embrace I will fear nothing)
et auro heros Aesonius potitur spolioque superbus
muneris auctorem secum spolia altera portans

(And the heroic son of Aeson [i.e. Jason] gained the Golden Fleece. Proud of this spoil and bearing with him the giver of his prize, another spoil)
(Cooke, pp 55-56.)

These could be interpreted as suggesting that the painting should be read in terms of the conflict between Jason and Medea: Medea expresses her subjugate trust in him, whilst Jason considers her to be just another spoil won alongside the Golden Fleece.

Still more puzzling is the spattering of other details, of hummingbirds, the sphinx on top of the pillar, medals decorating the shaft of that pillar, and more. Some appear merely to be decorative, but drawing the line between the decorative and the symbolic is impossible.

The end result in Jason is almost the opposite of Oedipus and the Sphinx: the latter has a clear narrative which is then lightly embellished with symbols, the former relied on the interpretation of symbols to construct any narrative; as those symbols conflict with the original narrative, the viewer can readily become bewildered.

In the event, Jason was upstaged by an accident of history: dominating all discussion at the Salon of 1865 was a very different painting, Manet’s Olympia.

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

Twenty years later, when Moreau was grappling with personal losses and grief, he revisited the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx. The Triumphant Sphinx, or The Victorious Sphinx from 1886 explores the possibility of Oedipus answering the riddle incorrectly, and the sphinx proving femme fatale to him as well. I don’t think that he ever exhibited it.


Cooke P (2014) Gustave Moreau, History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20433 9.
Mathieu P-L (1998, 2010) Gustave Moreau, the Assembler of Dreams, PocheCouleur. ISBN 978 2 867 70194 8.