Oedipus and the Sphinx Painting by Gustave Moreau | Analysis

Oedipus and the Sphinx is a Symbolist artwork depicting the mythological scene of Oedipus’s confrontation with Sphinx, a beautiful blonde woman with unusual body.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

When we dive into the ocean of immense and pure knowledge, we might dismantle the myths and lies of this corporeal world. You must understand that there is always a vast literature behind us, which helps us to understand the profound reflection on ourselves to find the ultimate reality and truth of the world. Furthermore, you can not neglect the fact that throughout the evolution of humans, materialism existed as a trap. Humans have evolved through a journey from a fake and materialistic world to the transcendental one. Now you might foreground the word materialism every time, and some among us may think of it as everything coming through our eyes, but it is just half reality. If you see yourself burdened with these words, don’t worry, you don’t have to think in-depth because I will let you know the basics in the coming sections. For this time, let us go into the shores of the spiritual world so that we understand how Gustave Moreau thought about portraying biblical characters on his canvas. You have to form a layout in your mind while we discuss and analyze his artwork Oedipus and the Sphinx as it resembles the principles of materialism and transcendence.

I will discuss the entire artwork with you from scratch. You don’t have to bother about anything as usual. Let me give you some accountable information on the painting first.

General Information About the Painting.

1. Artist’s Statement.

“This bored fantastic woman, with her animal nature, giving herself the pleasure of seeing her enemy struck down, not a particularly keen one for her because she is so weary of having all her desires satisfied… When I want to render these fine nuances, I do not find them in the subject, but in the nature of women in real life who seek unhealthy emotions and are too stupid even to understand the horror in the most appalling situations.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the painting is Oedipus’s confrontation with the Sphinx, shimmering the sexual tension. Her body is that of a lion, her wings are those of a bird, and her face, breast, and coiffured hair are those of a young, beautiful blonde woman. This femme fatale is depicted as a “castrating” one. You can notice a painful claw digs into Oedipus’s flesh, while her hind legs press against his genital region. She appears to be trying to hypnotize him as he stares her down in defence. 

Oedipus and the sphinx painting by French artist Gustave Moreau, 1864
Oedipus And The Sphinx, 1864 | Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920, The Met Museum

3. Artist. 

Gustave Moreau painted the terrific composition, Oedipus and The Sphinx. Born on 6 April 1826 in Paris, the artist belonged to the Symbolism period. Through his biblical character, he demonstrated the religious and mythological subjects with symbolism and eroticism, which we will learn about in later sections. Other than this, the development in Moreau’s artwork was from his master, Theodore Chasseriau. 

During his early Salon exhibitions, he had mild success, while with Oedipus and the Sphinx in 1864, he had his first notable success. His paintings progress from relatively simple scenes to an ever-increasing amount of detail. One more noteworthy point is that Moreau has far more unfinished works than finished ones because he reworked his canvases frequently. Throughout his life, he lived near solitude and dedicated himself entirely to his work. He taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts from 1891 until his death, where Matisse and Rouault were among his students. Moreau’s work is largely preserved.

4. Date.

The painting dates back to the year 1864. 

5. Provenance.

Returning to the pages of History, we understand that Gustave consistently portrayed himself as a defender of idealist values. In the 1860s, Oedipus and the Sphinx marked the beginning of his mature career. The 1864 artwork stood for a combative statement of his idealist ethic and aesthetic values.

Furthermore, it marked the weighty event of the 1864 Salon where for the first time, an artist would be the focus of such critical attention marking his first Parisian exhibition. You would be surprised to know that the critiques of that time officially recognized him as a champion of the painting style and bringing French art again. 

Oedipus was an exemplary idealist work that did not ignore the material condition and provided a much-needed counterbalance to antispiritual tendencies in contemporary art. What inspired Gustav to paint such a composition and the entire timeline will be discussed later in the following sections of the article.

6. Location.

The painting is on exhibition in New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

7. Technique and Medium.

The medium of the painting is oil on canvas. With a realist technique, Gustave used heaps of Symbolism. He used Symbolist ideas where he culled his subjects from biblical and mythical sources. He sought to show a deeper essence behind the subjects by translating them with their different emotions. You can understand in a way that Oedipus was a similar subject in three divergent paintings with variable emotions and situations. He used to highlight his perspectives on the same subject repeatedly, highlighting the different figures and emotional responses in each image. 

Now you might think about the Symbolist technique and idea of the painting. You don’t have to open another tab instead, I will let you know about it. 

Symbolists viewed the personal responses as significant, so rather than indicating nature, they represented their idea. Aurier, a crucial Symbolist historian in 1891, wrote that the object in the Symbolist artwork is never considered an object but a belief from the artists. 

One essential concept for Symbolism is the difference between allegories and symbols. Allegory is a direct correlation where one object refers to only one concept. However, like the Symbolists felt that every detail of their work should have multiple meanings, Moreau has multifaceted subjects translating each subject into material representation. 

ArtistGustave Moreau
Year Painted1864
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions2.06 x 1.05m
Last ExhibitionNew York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Rodin at The Met,” 16 September 2017 – 4 February 2018
Where is it housed?Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now, that you know a brief about the painting, Oedipus and The Sphinx, let us move to the in-depth analysis of the artwork.

In-Depth Description of Oedipus and the Sphinx.

About the Artist: Gustave Moreau.

Starting from his early life, Gustave’s father, Louis Moreau, was an architect of the City of Paris, and he was witty, cultivated and had enormous love for the arts, whereas his mother, nee Pauline Desmoustiers, was a sensitive, impressible woman with a career of an accomplished musician. Gustave was a delicate child, with his parents taking care of him at every single moment of time. He was an affectionate child but was very shy and ill at ease in the company of his fellow pupils at a young age. Gustave painted from the age of eight, and when he went to Italy with his mother, uncle and aunt, his artistic skills brought him into the limelight. The more he drew, the more his father allowed him to work in a studio in the evenings after school. As Gustave painted in his early days, he received comments from Dedreux d’Orcy, the painter to whom he had shown a sketch of Phryne before her Judges, that influenced his decisions. In 1844, he joined Ecole des Beaux-Artis in the studio of Francois Picot

Self Portrait of French artist Gustave Moreau, 1950
Self-Portrait, 1850, Gustave Moreau | Source: Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The experience and discipline Picot required of his students may have been an advantage precisely because they counteracted the exuberance of Moreau’s character at an age when easy success is more important than sound study. Even though Picot had a dry approach, Moreau remained under him until 1850.

Despite being a hardworking and conscientious student in his teacher’s studio, Gustave was more influenced by Romanticism. 

Hence, after a hassle, he left the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1850 and took a studio in the Avenue Frochot, where he was the neighbour of Chasseriau. Chasseriau had a fantastic personality, and his success in paintings was undeniably prestigious. In 1852, Gustave represented for the first time at the Salon through his artwork, Pieta. Now, I have already given you a few early days of Gustave through his career, so that you understand from where he started to begin his art. Let me take you to the provenance of the painting so that you understand under what conditions Gustave painted Oedipus and the Sphinx.

History and Background of the Artwork.

Gustave listed six possible subjects for the painting linked to the Greek Sphinx, a monster who posted crossroads between Theben and Delphi, massacring those who couldn’t solve his riddles. The artwork we see now narrates the event when Oedipus solves the sphinx riddles, but there are other significant events too. For instance, there is a story when there is unknown murder of his father and incestuous marriage to his mother and others. Hence, we can see that Gustave was interested in these confrontations of Oedipus as they symbolized the dualities of good and evil, man and woman, and spiritual and material forces. 

Gustave made at least six sphinx subjects which correspond to the painting exhibited at the Salon of 1864, but only one among them had completion. They are-

  • Sphinx Oedipus- Here, a matured age man wrestles with the enigma of life. 
  • Sphinx, reclining in the countryside of Thebes, showcases the desolating landscape and field of death.
  • The Sphinx on rocks looking at the sea depicts a winged figure carved from the rock, enriched will all precious stones. 
  • The Sphinx in the sun sleeping on rocks bordering the sea portrays the figure of a young girl whose head rests on its folded wings. 
  • Sphinx looking at the high seas.
  • And finally, Oedipus watches her fall. 

Before 1870, Gustave had experimented with all of these subjects in small sketches and works under the letter O:

“Oedipus and the Sphinx Meditation/ Oedipus and the vanquished Sphinx/Oedipus and the Sphinx/ Oedipus Dead; and under the letter S: Sphinc, she looks at the sea/ Sphinx and a Theban prostrating himself/ Sphinx nonplussed/ Sphinx vanquished.”

In 1861, Gustave first formed a preliminary sketch showing the monster clutching Oedipus, where he was on the right, and the crouching monster reoriented in a vertical position. And after this, the artist had many anatomical drawings for the live model of Oedipus. He wrote in his notebook,

“Oedpius is a figure who should be slavishly copied from nature. For here one will attain nobility and the ideal all the better the more one renders Man just as he is.”

Following Gustave’s attention to anatomy, he turned his attention to the accessories in the work, a symbolic antique object, an urn on a column. The artist then decorated it with four griffins taken from a print by Giovanni Battista Piranesi that appeared in Vasi, Candelabri, and Cippi, and in which some plates are bound into a folio that the artist doubtless inherited from his father.

It was only in October 1862 that Gustave gave his serious attention to the work, Oedipus and Sphinx, and by March 20, 1864, he completed the artwork, engaging Ottoz to transport it to the Palais de l’industrie for the Salon. 

The painting anticipated a great success for the artist. 

The Grand Journal wrote,

“Everyone in the art world is talking about a history painting said to be landmark event of the century, a work that supposedly will rally the faltering classical school, console M. Ingres for his declining health, and bring terror to the heart of naturalism. This painting represents the famous mythological scene attempted by so many masters, Oedipus and the Sphinx. It is said that the composition is quite beautiful, the expression striking, and the execution irreproachable.”

Understanding the Meaning.

You might be awaited for the meaning behind the artwork. It basically narrates the Oedipus and the Sphinx story. Oedipus, the legendary Greek prince, once confronted the malevolent Sphinx, which usually torments and devastates travellers with a riddle.

You might be thinking about the riddle. Let us check your knowledge. Tell me, my adorable people. What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs, in the evening? As long as you know the answer, you survive.

For those who are unabled to answer the riddle, you can see the remains of the people in the artwork. If you still can’t think of the answer, let me tell you the answer.

Human! The one who crawls as a baby, strides upright in maturity and uses a stick in old age, which suggests three legs. 

How fascinating do you think the riddle is, and were you successful in answering it? Well, this was the basis of the painting. 

Looking at the Subject Matter and Dominant Elements.

The painting has a subject matter of Oedipus and the Sphinx in a dramatic entry, or should I say adoring a fantastic vision. Let us discuss each of them separately so that we can easily focus on one thing at a time. 

Oedipus and the sphinx painting
Oedipus and the sphinx | Source: Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920, The Met Museum

1. Oedipus.

In the image, Oedipus stands naked with a bent knee, staring into the eyes of the monstrous Sphinx. The face of Oedipus does not have intense looks, but the eyes stuck to the communication between Sphinx, and himself create an exaggerated effect on the composition.

Oedipus in the Oedipus and Sphinx by Gustave Moreau
Oedipus in the composition

Holding an arrow, he stands naked with a well-defined shoulder and an intense collarbone. A lavish dark green cloth hangs from the other half of the chest till the end of his foot. Gustave has shown each af his muscles in a definite form with a precise naturalism. The Sphinx clasped its tight claws over his intimate genitalia. Jean Rousseau, a critic writes about the painting,

“Oedipus and the Sphinx is a fantastic vision, where the burning spirit and feverish dreams of Delacroix.”

2. Sphinx.

As one can see, Sphinx has a body of a lion, her wings are those of a bird, and her face, breast, and coiffured hair are those of a young, beautiful blonde woman. Gustave made sure that he depicted the Sphinx, as monstrous with a menacing appeal, focussing on her alluring face and mythical body.

Sphinx in the Oedipus and Sphinx Gustave Moreau
Sphinx in the composition

She had a dark blue coloured tiara on her head with pearls, emphasising her look. Supposedly, this tiara has similar colours as the wings on her body, which are featurey and sparkling with ivory contours. 

You can see the image of the poet and the issue of creativity in the artist’s work. There are only two characters depicted in full. A fantastic landscape and elaborately decorated symbols fill the painting. 

The first thing that attracts the viewer is the colour, shape and composition of the artwork. Furthermore, the erotic subject, a female figure with a very strange burden – a body of an animal is also noteworthy. 

Now that you know a little description of the painting, let me tell you a few more interesting points. Gustave painted men as heroic figures, transcending the fleshy and material forms so that he focused on the transcendent beyond the physical world. The artist portrays the woman as a threat to the male body henceforth, he portrayed a female with an animal body. Furthermore, he illustrated a metamorphic treat through the animal body parts and humans as an intimate posture.

The artwork shows the intimate fusion of spirituality and materialism.

Formally Analysing Oedipus and the Sphinx.

1. Line.

The composition includes several numbers of diagonal lines. For instance, the red arrow in Oedipus’s hand and his knee tilt to form a diagonal line, forming stress in the composition. Similarly, the Sphinx when climbs up Oedipus’s torso and lies in a diagonal direction, harming the stability of Oedipus through her manipulating character. The only vertical line to form a steadiness is the blue-white pillar on the leftmost side of the composition.

2. Light and Value.

There is darkness in the background of the painting, Oedipus and the Spinx. With a catastrophic contrast and brightness, the bodies of the two subjects shimmer with soft light. Over the rock where Oedipus keep his feet, there are areas of light and shadows, representing a perfect naturalism.

Black and White Oedipus and the sphinx painting
Light and Value of Oedipus and the Sphinx painting

3. Colour.

Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx uses muted colours to depict the mythological plot with subjectivism and tints of fantasy. In the background, we see large clouds with grey and tonnes of blue with a rock landscape and one tree with purple blossoms. The remains on the rock of the travellers with red coloured dress highlight a tension here, particularly a symbol of danger.

The white skin of males and females with blonde hair is also noteworthy here. The green drapery, red arrow, and dark-blue feathers with white tonnes highlight the image with captivating beauty.

Also, there are other colours with a warm appearance, so the viewer adores both the riddle and the beauty.

Congratulations Legend! You have crossed a milestone of a healthy reading habit. Let us wrap up the article now so that you can boast true knowledge among your friends. 

Opinions and Conclusion.

The Oedipus and the Sphinx is a mastermind in itself with all the values and warm appearance. Honestly, it looks like a dream which reveals the mysterious doors of creativity. Gustave has done an impeccable job through his imagination, inspiration from the Bible and warm colours. I dearly hope that I can witness through my naked eye one of its exhibitions in the coming days or years. 

What do you love most about the art? Tell me, which painting you want to see shortly and why in the comments. Maybe I can analyse it for you with a credible resource. I bid you bye for this time.


1. Gustave Moreau by Jean Paladilhe and Jose Pierre.

2. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream by Genevieve Lacambre.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Who painted Oedipus and the Sphinx?

Gustave Moreau painted Oedipus and the Sphinx as a depiction of the famous tale of the Greek king Oedipus with the Sphinx, a creature with a female torso. One of the characteristics of Moreau’s work was the use of similar subjects but different emotions in different paintings.

When was Oedipus and the Sphinx painted?

Gustave Moreau painted the oil painting Oedipus and the Sphinx in 1864, which was exhibited at French Salon the same year. The artwork was an immediate success as the critiques saw Moreau as a champion of painting style and considered him to bring back French art.

What do the Oedipus and the Sphinx painting depict?

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau depicts a scene from the Greek king Oedipus’s confrontation with a mythological character Sphinx. In the artwork, the Sphinx is shown as a creature with a female torso, a lion’s bottom, and bird’s wings, while Oedipus is shown maintaining eye contact with the sphinx and carrying a spear in the left hand. Additionally, the corpses of travellers unable to solve the Sphinx’s riddle are portrayed at the bottom of the frame.

Why did Gustave Moreau paint Oedipus and the Sphinx?

Gustave Moreau painted Oedipus and the Sphinx as a depiction of the famous Greek tale, as well as the continuation of his style where he portrayed men as heroic figures and women as a threat to the male body.

What type of art is Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau?

Symbolist oil painting.


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