Oedipus stands before the Sphinx, who challenges him to solve a riddle before he can enter the city of Thebes, just visible in the distance. The skull and bones at the bottom of the picture show the fate of those who have previously failed the test. According to legend, Oedipus answers correctly and he becomes King of Thebes.
Ingres had painted a larger version of this picture in 1808, which is now in the Louvre, Paris. He later enlarged the canvas and reworked the composition, and it is likely that the National Gallery’s painting is a developed sketch for these revisions.
Oedipus and the Sphinx clearly shows Ingres’s attraction to the classical world, whether as a source for stories or as a source for a deliberately classical artistic style. Here, Oedipus’s pose is based upon an ancient Greek statue of Hermes, while the shallow space and figures in profile recall Greek vases.
Oedipus, a figure from Greek mythology, stands nude and in profile before the Sphinx, who guards the entrance to the ancient city of Thebes. The Sphinx – a monster with the face, head and shoulders of a woman, a lion’s body, and bird’s wings – asks Oedipus to solve the riddle she poses to all travellers seeking to enter the city: ‘What has a voice and walks on all fours in the morning, on two at noon, and on three in the evening?’ Oedipus correctly answers that it is man who crawls on all fours as a child, walks on two legs as an adult, and uses a walking stick as a third leg in old age. The bones of a previous traveller, killed by the Sphinx for having failed to solve the riddle, lie at the bottom of the picture. Thebes is visible in the distance on the right.
The theme of a monster defeated by human intelligence clearly appealed to Ingres. The picture also complements another of his paintings, Angelica saved by Ruggierro, which shows a chivalrous knight attacking a sea monster to save a princess. But this is also a painting of a man facing his destiny, as Oedipus’s actions will lead him to become King of Thebes, as the oracle predicted at his birth, and to unknowingly marry his own mother, Jocasta. This unwitting tragedy and its consequences is the drama of Oedipus Rex, the middle play of Sophocles' Theban Plays.
This painting is a later, and smaller, version of one painted in 1808 and subsequently reworked in 1827 (Louvre, Paris). The first version of Oedipus and the Sphinx was essentially a figure study that Ingres painted while studying at the French Academy in Rome. It was sent to Paris to be judged by members of the Institut de France. As required by the Institut’s rules, the figure of Oedipus was based upon a live model, although the pose was derived from the classical statue, Hermes Fastening his Sandal (Louvre), a Roman marble copy of a lost Greek bronze. Oedipus’s body is presented as an arrangement of geometrical shapes; for example, the triangle formed by his left arm, thigh and chest is mirrored and inverted by his left upper arm and forearm. The use of profile for both Oedipus and the Sphinx, together with the shallow space in much of the picture, recalls classical friezes and ancient Greek vases, which Ingres used as the sources for his deliberately classical artistic style.
The painting was once owned by Edgar Degas, who bought it for his private collection in the mid-1890s.
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