Characters in Painted Stories: 10 Oedipus

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.

In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have completed my survey of those plots as explored in the first part of Booker’s book. At the end of the third part, he discusses two of the greatest narratives in the European canon: the stories of Oedipus and Hamlet. This article looks at how the first of those has been told in paintings.

Oedipus is less of a plot than a whole family saga. It centres on a mythical king of Thebes, who fulfils a prophecy that he will kill his father, marry his mother (hence giving rise to the Oedipus complex), thus bring disaster to himself, his family, and his kingdom. Within that is a series of plots, first centring on the young Oedipus, his origin as an abandoned infant, the prophecy, unintended killing of his father, and his defeat of the Sphinx. It’s that last episode which has proved most popular with major painters. By virtue of his success over the Sphinx, Oedipus enters the city of Thebes as its new king, and marries the former king’s widow, Jocasta, who is his natural mother.

Much later on, Thebes is struck by a plague, which only Oedipus can bring to an end, by discovering who murdered his father. When he realises that it was him, and Jocasta discovers that he is her son, she hangs herself, and Oedipus blinds himself with two pins taken from his mother’s dress.

These stories are told in several Greek plays, of which Sophocles’ trilogy of Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are perhaps the finest. Although less well-known painters have depicted many scenes from those and other plays, it’s the confrontation between Oedipus and the Sphinx which has been a dominant theme in narrative painting.

After Oedipus had been given his prophecy by the oracle at Delphi, he decided to travel on to nearby Thebes rather than return to Corinth. He next encountered a chariot, got into an argument with the man who was driving it, and when the charioteer tried to run him over, Oedipus killed the man, not realising that he was the king of Thebes, and his natural father.

Oedipus next encountered the Sphinx, who was effectively laying siege to the city of Thebes by refusing to let anyone pass unless they answered its riddle correctly. Those who got the answer wrong were promptly strangled. One version of the Sphinx’s riddle is the question “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.

With this, the Sphinx’s siege was broken, and Oedipus was rewarded with the crown of Thebes, and Jocasta’s hand in marriage.

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.

The Sphinx was a mythical creature with the head of a human, the haunches of a lion, and sometimes a bird’s wings. Two varieties are described in the classical literature: the Greek Sphinx, based on a woman and typically shown with human breasts, and the Egyptian, based on a man’s upper body. The only example of the Greek Sphinx was that guarding the entrance to Thebes.

In The Sphinx of the Seashore (1879), Elihu Vedder shows a distinctly Greek Sphinx in a coastal desert which could readily be close to Thebes, in the rich red light of sunset. Around the Sphinx are the skulls and other remains of those who did not solve its riddle correctly, but there’s no sign of Oedipus.

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, there’s little tension.

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.

The first masterwork telling this story was painted by JAD Ingres just two years after he had arrived in Rome as the recipient of the Prix de Rome, working in a studio in the grounds of the Villa Medici. When sent back to Paris, it was criticised over its treatment of light, and lack of idealisation in the figures. In 1825, Ingres decided to develop it into a more narrative work, which he completed in 1827. His reworking enlarged the canvas, adding human remains at the lower left, and the contrasting background to the right. He skilfully shows the bare minimum of the Sphinx needed to identify it.

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.

Gustave Moreau’s justly famous painting shows the same scene as Ingres’, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. This elaborates the tense visual story with intricate symbols, and is painted in an archaic style which is generally referred to as resembling that of Andrea Mantegna.

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 this story. 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.

With Ingres and Moreau setting the standard, the later nineteenth century saw more novel treatments.

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, and distracts with the other figures and landscape.

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

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’s little tension.

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

Odilon Redon took the Sphinx into a mediaeval court in this pastel painting of Mystical Knight from 1894, which must remain one of its most original treatments. Oedipus is carrying a disembodied head in his right arm as he out-stares the Sphinx.

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.

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.

The rest of the story has appeared in some paintings by major artists.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Oedipus Rex (1895), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1895, Pierre-Auguste Renoir was commissioned by Paul Gallimard to make a series of paintings for his homes in Paris and Normandy. Among those works was Oedipus Rex (1895), one of Renoir’s few narrative paintings. This shows the famous actor of the time Jean Mounet-Sully (1841-1916) in the title role after his character had gouged his own eyes out, and is stumbling out of his palace to confront the Thebans and demand his own exile.

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927), Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices (date not known), oil on canvas, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Marie Spartali Stillman’s Antigone Giving Burial Rites to the Body of Her Brother Polynices is unusually painted in oils. Polynices and Eteocles, the sons of Oedipus, quarrelled over which should rule Thebes, leading to their deaths. King Creon, who succeeded them, decreed that Polynices was neither to be mourned nor buried, on pain of death by stoning. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, defied the order and was caught. Here Stillman shows Antigone (centre) attending to the burial of her brother, her companion fearfully trying to draw her away. They are greeted by carrion crows, and at the far right is the headstone of a grave. It’s possible that Marie painted this in late 1884, as a response to her own sister’s death.

Booker’s emphasis is quite the opposite to that of visual artists. He covers the story of Oedipus and the Sphinx briefly, proposing that it represents the triumph of Oedipus as a man over the Sphinx’s ‘dark feminine’.

As visual narrative goes, this is one of the rare exceptions to Aristotle’s peripeteia, in that no prominent artist has attempted to depict the moment of change, in which Oedipus delivers the answer to the riddle. The most successful paintings, by Ingres and Moreau, instead show the moments of high tension just before the peripeteia, leaving the viewer to complete both the solution to the riddle and the continuation of the story to the incestuous marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta.

I will resume my discussion of peripeteia in the next article in this series.


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2