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Work Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphinx

Department of Paintings: French painting

Oedipus and the Sphinx

© 2010 RMN / RMN / Stéphane Maréchalle

French painting

De Vergnette François

Oedipus, a character from Greek mythology, is answering the riddle asked by the fabulous monster, the Sphinx. The picture was initially a figure study that made up one of Ingres's "dispatches from Rome." Then, almost twenty years later, Ingres enlarged it to make a history painting and in so doing toned down the archaism of the earlier canvas. However, Oedipus himself remains a figure of outstanding formal harmony.

The triumph of a man over a monster

In a steep, rocky landscape, Oedipus, a character from Greek mythology, is seen naked, in profile, facing the Sphinx. This monster, with the face, head, and shoulders of a woman, a lion's body, and bird's wings, is standing in the shadows of a cave. Oedipus is giving the solution to the riddle that the Sphinx has asked him, as he has asked all travelers passing through this region of Thebes. When the monster asked him: "What is it that has a voice and walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and on three in the evening?" Oedipus answered that it was man who, as a child crawls on all fours, as an adult walks on two legs, and in old age uses a stick as a third leg. At the bottom of the picture, a discarded foot and human bones recall the previous travelers who have perished after failing to reply. In the background, one of Oedipus's companions is running away, terrified. Further away, in the distance, the buildings of the city of Thebes can just be made out. The theme of the work is the triumph of intelligence and of human beauty. But the scene is also one of man confronting his destiny since Oedipus's exploit will lead to him becoming king of Thebes and marrying his mother Jocasta, as the oracle had predicted when he was born. It was a subject rarely portrayed from the end of the classical period until Ingres, but in the nineteenth century it came to fascinate many artists, most notably Gustave Moreau (1826-1898).

The "dispatch from Rome" that became a history painting

In 1808 this work was Ingres's first "dispatch from Rome." It was then simply a figure study (an "academy figure" as it was called), of the sort that everyone was obliged to do if they were studying at the French Academy in Rome. It was sent to Paris with The Valpinçon Bather (Musée du Louvre) to be judged by members of the Institut de France, who criticized the ill-defined contours and the subdued chiaroscuro of Oedipus. In 1827, Ingres developed this study to create a history painting that he wanted to exhibit at the Salon. He extended the canvas on three sides in order to make the figure of the Sphinx bigger and to add the figure of Oedipus's companion in the background.

Geometrical harmony and archaism

As demanded by the rules of the Institut, Ingres painted his figure study from a live model. He got his model to use the same pose as the classical statue of Hermes with the Sandal (Musée du Louvre). It is a pose which accentuates the musculature of the model's body, making him appear strong and determined. His body, limbs, and the javelins that he is holding all form geometrically harmonious shapes. The clarity of the contours, the muted use of chiaroscuro and the slight surface relief given to the figure of Oedipus add an archaic flavor to the picture. This archaism had its roots in Ingres's taste for Greek vases. However, Ingres transformed the canvas in 1827, toning down the archaic aspect and giving it a more modern, even a romantic, appearance. He also made certain sections darker and painted the additional figure with his expression of terror.


- ROSENBLUM Robert, Ingres, Cercle d'art, Paris, 1968, pp. 80-81.

- KORCHANE Mehdi, in Maestà di Roma. Da Napoleone all'unità d'Italia. D'Ingres à Degas. Les artistes français à Rome, catalogue d'exposition, Rome, Académie de France à Rome, Villa Médicis, Rome, Electa, 2003, pp. 489-490.

Technical description

  • Jean-Auguste-Dominique INGRES (Montauban, 1780 - Paris, 1867)

    Oedipus and the Sphinx


  • H. 1.89 m; W. 1.44 m

  • Bequest of the comtesse Duchâtel, 1878 , 1878

    R.F. 218

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Room 702

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Additional information about the work

Signature and date lower left: "I. INGRES PINGEBAT 1808."