Moreau, at mid-career, made his mark with this painting at the Salon of 1864. It represents the Greek hero Oedipus confronting the Sphinx outside Thebes: he must solve her riddle to save his life and those of the besieged Thebans. Remains of victims who failed the test appear at bottom right. Moreau's mythological theme and archaizing style reflect his admiration for Ingres’s 1808 version of the same subject and for the work of the early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna. In emulating these exemplars, Moreau diverged from the Realist sensibilities shaping French art in the 1860s.
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower left): .Gustave Moreau .64.
the artist, Paris (1864; sold on May 1 for Fr 8,000 to Napoleon); Prince Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, Paris (1864–68; sold on February 3, 1868, no. 10709, for Fr 14,000 to Durand-Ruel); [Durand-Ruel, Paris, in partnership with Brame, Paris, 1868; sold on March 6 for Fr 15,000 (to be paid in October 1868) to Herriman]; William H. Herriman, Rome (1868–d. 1921; installed at 93, Piazza di Spagna, Rome, by January 18, 1869)
Paris. Salon. May 1–?, 1864, no. 1388 (as "Œdipe et le sphinx").
Galerie de la société des amis des arts de Bordeaux. "Salon des amis des arts de Bordeaux," 1865, no. 395 [see Dussol 1997].
Paris. Musée du Louvre. "Gustave Moreau," June 1–September 30, 1961, no. 10.
New York. Museum of Modern Art. "Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin," December 4, 1961–February 4, 1962, no. 175.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin," March 2–April 15, 1962, no. 175.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Gustave Moreau," July 16–September 1, 1974, no. 28.
San Francisco. California Palace of the Legion of Honor. "Gustave Moreau," September 14–November 3, 1974, no. 28.
Philadelphia Museum of Art. "The Second Empire, 1852–1870: Art in France under Napoleon III," October 1–November 26, 1978, no. VI-93 (lent by the estate of Germain Seligman, New York).
Detroit Institute of Arts. "The Second Empire, 1852–1870: Art in France under Napoleon III," January 15–March 18, 1979, no. VI-93.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "L'art en France sous le Second Empire," May 11–August 13, 1979, no. 261.
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," September 29, 1998–January 4, 1999, no. 28.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," February 13–April 25, 1999, no. 28.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream," June 1–August 22, 1999, no. 28.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920," February 4–May 6, 2007, no. 45.
Berlin. Neue Nationalgalerie. "Französische Meisterwerke des 19. Jahrhunderts aus dem Metropolitan Museum of Art," June 1–October 7, 2007, unnumbered cat.
Gustave Moreau. Letter to Eugène Fromentin. October 18, 1862 [published in Barbara Wright, "Correspondance d'Eugène Fromentin," Paris, 1995, vol. 2, pp. 1266–67], states that he has been working seriously on this painting for fifteen days.
Léon Lagrange. "Le Salon de 1864." Gazette des beaux-arts 16 (1864), pp. 506–8, ill. opp. p. 506.
F. Aubert. Le Pays (1864) [see Ref. Sterling and Salinger 1967], likens it to the paintings of the fifteenth century.
Ph[ilippe]. Burty. "La Quinzaine artistique." La Presse (May 9, 1864), p. 3, states that it was acquired on the previous day by Prince Napoléon.
"Old Noll". "Des tendances de l'art contemporain, à l'occasion de l'Exposition des beaux-arts de 1864." Annales de la charité (Revue d'économie chrétienne) 6 (May 1864), pp. 883–902 [reprinted in Ref. Lacambre 1997], mentions that the Greek sphinx, half-woman and half-vulture, is represented here, rather than the Egyptian type, who is shown seated; discusses it in relation to Ingres's painting of the same subject, but notes that whereas Ingres presented a modern Oedipus, Moreau has better understood the classical Oedipus.
Edmond About. Salon de 1864. Paris, 1864, pp. 137–42, complains of a certain servility in the execution and of the wooden quality of the figure of Oedipus; appreciates Moreau's departure from tradition in unseating the sphinx from her plinth, but remarks that she is as stiff and expressionless as the seated Egyptian type; comments that Moreau has chosen for the face of the Sphinx the features of a Huret doll; mentions that the landscape was inspired by Moreau's trip to Italy and questions the necessity of the Etruscan vase in the foreground.
Charles Clément. "Exposition de 1864 (Troisiéme article)." Journal des débats politiques et littéraires (May 12, 1864), pp. 1–2, calls the body of the sphinx the best part of the composition; notes that the body of Oedipus is elegant although a bit thin; mentions that the elbow and the knee are badly drawn and that the foot looks deformed; however, concludes that in general the effect of the painting is good and that it does honor to its painter.
Hector de Callias. "Salon de 1864: Les quarante médailles." L'Artiste 1 (May 15, 1864), p. 219, comments that it is more of a study than a painting and notes that it recalls Italian masters such as Raphael.
Jules Claretie. "Salon de 1864: Le salon des refusés." L'Artiste 2 (June 30, 1864), p. 4, discusses the reaction of both the public and artists to it at the Salon; comments that it is drawn like a Mantegna and is as poetic as a Leonardo da Vinci.
Cham. "Une promenade au salon." Le Charivari (1864) [reprinted in Ref. Léger 1920, p. 54], publishes a caricature inspired by it.
Louis Auvray. Exposition des beaux-arts: Salon de 1864. Paris, 1864, pp. 54–57 [see Ref. Sterling and Salinger 1967].
Ph[ilippe]. Burty. "Beaux-Arts." La Presse (May 5, 1864), p. 2.
L'Artiste 1 (June 10, 1864), p. 273.
Théophile Gautier. Le moniteur universel (May 27, 1864), p. 766 [see Ref. Sterling and Salinger 1967].
Paul de Saint-Victor. "Salon de 1864 (Premier article)." La Presse (May 6–7, 1864 [one issue for both days]), p. 2.
A. Cantaloube. "Salon de 1864: La peinture." Nouvelle revue de Paris 3 (June 15, 1864), pp. 602–7, discusses the reaction of artists; remarks that the sphinx has the head and the breast of a virgin; notes that Oedipus expresses agitation of thought and the life of the spirit; comments that details at the bottom of the canvas such as the butterfly and urn serve not only to strengthen this part of the composition, but also serve as emblems to show the contrasts of life.
C. de Sault. "Salon de 1864. (2e article). Oedipe et le sphinx." Le Temps (May 12, 1864), pp. 1–2.
Adrien Paul. "Salon de 1864. La Peinture (5e article)." Le Siècle (June 8, 1864), p. 1.
Martel Caristie. "Salon de 1864." Revue du monde colonial, asiatique et américain; organe politique des deux-mondes 6 (April 1864), pp. 501–2, calls it enigmatic and states that it was painted with "un style non moins fabuleux" (a style no less fabulous) but still calls it a pastiche; states that Moreau would say that his archaizing style stems from the sixteenth-century old masters but faults the artist for servilely copying them instead of following nature only.
Jean Rousseau. "Salon de 1864." Figaro 11 (May 19, 1864), pp. 3–4, describes the picture at length.
Drion. "Salon de 1864." Journal du Loiret (June 8, 1864), p. ? [see Cooke 2003], calls it "un coup de tonnerre qui a éclaté en plein palais de l'Industrie" (a clap of thunder that broke out in the middle of the Palace of Industry).
Théophile Gautier. Le moniteur universel (July 9, 1865) [reprinted in Ref. Girard 1994], comments that Moreau gives a new interpretation of the Oedipus myth, likens the sphinx to a modern courtesan and Oedipus to a type of Greek Hamlet who is faced with the problems of life.
Maxime du Camp. Les beaux-arts à l'exposition universelle et aux salons de 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866 & 1867. Paris, 1867, pp. 109–19, praises both the content and the execution, and finds Moreau's interpretation more spiritual than that of Ingres.
Paul Mantz. "Les beaux-arts à l'exposition universelle." Gazette des beaux-arts (October 1867), p. 330.
Ernest Chesneau. Les nations rivales dans l'art. Paris, 1868, pp. 181–99, 203, 206–7, calls it an ideal work because each element of the composition has been thought out and perfectly realized; remarks that it is one of the best pictures in the Salon.
T. Thoré. Salons de W. Bürger 1861 à 1868. Vol. 2, Paris, 1870, pp. 14–19, praises the originality of the interpretation but condemns the literary quality, the technique, and the style.
Claude Phillips. "Gustave Moreau." Magazine of Art 8 (1885), p. 230, comments that the sphinx is too small and resembles a wild cat rather than a lioness, but that she has the head of a classical beauty; remarks that the figure of Oedipus suggests not the study of Mantegna or Pollaiuolo but the influence of the Greek canon; mentions that there is a noticeable mannerism in the rendering of the figures that detracts from the "pictorial qualities of the design".
Jules Breton. Nos peintres du siècle. Paris, [189?], p. 178, comments that the nervous and subtle execution of parts of the landscape recalls Fromentin.
[Jules] Castagnary. Salons (1857–1870). Paris, 1892, vol. 1, pp. 196–202, condemns its literary quality and criticizes the details, calling it a pastiche of the Italian Renaissance.
G. W. The Pageant. London, 1897, pp. 5, 13–14, ill.
Ary Renan. Gustave Moreau, 1826–1898. Paris, 1900, pp. 27, 45, 49–52, 131, 133, reproduces an engraving after it.
Odilon Redon. Letter to Mme de Holstein. January 29, 1900 [reprinted in Ref. Redon 1923, p. 38], recalls the deep impression this painting made on him at the Salon of 1864.
Édouard Schuré. "L'Oedipe de Gustave Moreau." La Revue de Paris no. 23 (1900), pp. 617–18, remarks that it has the appearance of an antique bas-relief.
Abbé Loisel. L'inspiration chrétienne du peintre Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1912, p. 28, interprets the theme as man opposed to nature.
Mario Praz. The Romantic Agony. London, 1933, pp. 295–96, remarks that it is the first painting in Moreau's Sphinx series dealing with "the theme of satanic beauty in primitive mythology".
Joseph C. Sloane. French Painting Between the Past and the Present: Artists, Critics, and Traditions, from 1848 to 1870. [reprint 1973]. Princeton, 1951, pp. xii, 171–72, 174–76, fig. 68, notes Moreau's courage in attempting a theme that had been successfully handled by Ingres years before and adds that the main influence was Chassériau, although contemporary critics did not acknowledge this; cites and discusses the critical reception of it at the Salon of 1864; mentions that although critics praised it, they also charged the artist with eclecticism; remarks that its success, in terms of Moreau's career, was short-lived.
Bettina Polak. Het Fin-de-Siècle in de Nederlandse Shilderkunst: De symolistische beweging 1890–1900. The Hague, 1955, pp. 38–39, discusses it in a study of the sphinx in the art and literature of the nineteenth century.
Ragnar von Holten. "Oedipe et le sphinx: Gustave Moreau genombrottsverk." Tidskrift för Konstvetenskap: Symbolister 32 (1957), pp. 37–50, ill., mentions that the posture of the Sphinx may be derived from a poem by Heinrich Heine in the "Buch der Lieder".
Ragnar von Holten. L'art fantastique de Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1960, pp. 2–9, 13, fig. 6, remarks that for Moreau, the subject represents not only the fight between good and evil, but also between the sexes; agrees that this painting is eclectic, but comments that in Moreau's search to express his way of thinking, he has completely broken with the academic tradition of Ingres.
Dore Ashton. Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, Rodolphe Bresdin. Exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art. New York, 1961, pp. 113, 115, 179, no. 175, ill., comments that the transfixed gaze of Oedipus and the Sphinx is characteristic of Moreau "who again and again suggests an ambiguous mirror-image, two aspects, two abstract entities that confront each other and recognize each other all too well"; mentions that mountains commonly threaten the characters in Moreau's mythology and believes that here they have been transformed into towers or thrones, and seem to "symbolize an ideal of ascension".
Charles Sterling and Margaretta M. Salinger. French Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 3, XIX–XX Centuries. New York, 1967, pp. 1–5, ill., mention that Moreau made careful preparations for it, including more than thirty sketches, ten of which are studies of a large bird's wing, which served as a model for the wing of the sphinx, and that there are also two large cartoons; remark that after the Salon Moreau repeated the composition in a number of watercolors and in two paintings that have the appearance of sketches, but are dated May 1864.
Jean Paladilhe. Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1971, pp. 95, 97, 99, 102, 110–11, 137, ill.
Henri Dorra. "The Guesser Guessed: Gustave Moreau's Œdipus." Gazette des beaux-arts 81 (March 1973), pp. 129–140, ill., proposes that the pose of the sphinx and Oedipus is not based on a poem by Heine, but is derived from the Greek etymological meaning of the word sphinx, which is to clutch, embrace, or cling to; remarks that a paper on this subject written by Michel Bréal appeared in 1863, but notes that it is likely that this notion was current before that publication; discusses the symbolic meaning of some of the elements in the picture, particularly the crown and purple cloth which are seen as emblems of political power, the golden laurel, representing official academic honors, and the jewelry of the sphinx, material wealth; attributes autobiographical overtones to these elements; suggests that the prototype of Oedipus could be derived from the design of a Bithynian coin of Nicomedes II depicting Zeus leaning on a staff with an eagle on his right, and comments that Moreau was also probably affected by Renaissance mannerism; concludes that in it the principal "ingredients" of symbolism can be seen.
Lydie Huyghe in René Huyghe. La Relève du réel: la peinture française au XIXe siècle: impressionnisme, symbolisme. Paris, 1974, pp. 267, 297, 452, ill.
Julius Kaplan. Gustave Moreau. Exh. cat., Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Los Angeles, 1974, pp. 22–24, 26, 32–33, 41, 53, 80, 129–30, no. 28, ill., remarks that Moreau conceived Oedipus and the Sphinx in terms of a conflict between moral idealism and sensual desire; notes that Moreau supplemented Ingres's prototypes with classical and Persian scenes of confrontations between man and beast; suggests that Moreau borrowed from Michelangelo the static figures whose staring expresssions suggest they are lost in thought or dream; finds the style to be reminiscent of Carpaccio and the synthesis to be influenced by Poussin.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau: With a catalogue of finished paintings, watercolors and drawings. Boston, 1976, pp. 14, 18, 28, 70, 81–85, 94, 110–11, 128, 130, 197, 241, 257, 269 n. 312, pp. 284, 305, no. 64, ill. (color and black and white), discusses a series of watercolors and drawings made for it.
Peter Hahlbrock. Gustave Moreau oder Das Unbehagen in der Natur. Berlin, 1976, pp. 29, 49–54, 91–92, 101–3, 108, 121, 143, 153, 171–72, 174–75, 180–81, no. 36 (overall and detail).
Hans H. Hofstätter. Gustave Moreau: Leben und Werk. 1978, pp. 24, 70–72, 81, colorpl. 9.
Monique Halm-Tisserant. "La sphinx amoureuse: Un schéma grec dans l'œuvre de G. Moreau." Revue des archéologues et historiens d'art de Louvain 14 (1981), pp. 30–68, fig. 2, suggests that the pose and concept of this work was inspired and informed by ancient examples, which Moreau could have seen in the Louvre or been familiar with from his own books.
Roy McMullen. Degas: His Life, Times, and Work. Boston, 1984, p. 107.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Tout l'œuvre peint de Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1991, pp. 5, 8–9, 68, 87, no. 105, fig. 105, colorpl. VIII, states that Moreau began working on the composition in 1860, but mistakenly remarks that the earliest studies for it date from 1861.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau. Paris, 1994, pp. 9, 48, 72–79, 81, 83, 90, 110–11, 132, 139, 191, 264–65, 269, 277 n. 5–6, p. 278 nn. 24–30, p. 280 n. 60, p. 287 n. 63, p. 288 n. 15, 292, ill. (color), states that it is difficult to establish whether Heine's poem from the "Buch der Leider" was a source of inspiration because of the dating of the preparatory sketches.
Michael Fried. Manet's Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s. Chicago, 1996, pp. 10, 164, 308–12, 314–17, 577 nn. 125–26, p. 578 nn. 129, 133, colorpl. 14, observes that it was criticized for its "hard, detailed, linear style of Mantegna and other fifteenth-century Northern Italian masters," but also notes that it may have been the most highly-praised picture at any Salon of the 1860s; mentions that, in the alphabetically arranged Salon, it was in the same room as Manet's "The Dead Christ and the Angels" (MMA 29.100.51) and thus they were compared critically.
Julius Kaplan inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 22, New York, 1996, p. 89.
Dominique Dussol. Art et bourgeoisie: La société des amis des arts de Bordeaux (1851–1939). Bordeaux, 1997, pp. 17, 150, 159, 269.
Pierre-Louis Mathieu. Gustave Moreau: Monographie et nouveau catalogue de l'œuvre achevé. Paris, 1998, pp. 50–51, 150, 190, 238, 294, no. 75, ill. (color and black and white), states that a man named "Doneto" posed for it.
Geneviève Lacambre. Gustave Moreau: Between Epic and Dream. Exh. cat., Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris. Chicago, 1999, pp. 2, 16, 75, 77–83 n. 17, p. 84 nn. 20–22, 27, pp. 92, 94, 99, 106, 108, 127, 196, 222, 282, no. 28, ill. (color, overall and detail) [French ed., 1998], observes that Moreau lists our painting in his notebook as no. 53 "Sphinx. Oedipus. A man of mature age wrestling with the enigma of life," the only picture of the subject marked with a cross to indicate that it has been completed; examines our picture within the context of its sources and other versions of the subject to elucidate Moreau's working methods; observes that the canvas was purchased on October 20, 1862 from Ottoz for Fr 30. and sold to Prince Napoleon on May 1, 1864 for Fr 8,000; quotes extensively from letters and press clippings containing reactions to its first exhibition at the Salon of 1864.
J.-M. Moret. "Gustave Moreau et l'antiquité." La lettre de la maison de l'Orient 21 (Spring 2000), pp. 4–5, fig. 1, argues that the pose for Oedipus comes from a funerary stele from Athens (Museum of Leiden, Germany).
Peter Cooke. Gustave Moreau et les arts jumeaux: Peinture et littérature au dix-neuvième siècle. Bern, 2003, pp. 53, 55–58, pl. 1, notes the nobility of Moreau's ambitions to achieve the highest ideal of history painting in The Met's picture through an original iconographic conception, the inclusion of mysterious elements, and the choice of a mythological subject; traces the painting's critical reception at the Salon of 1864.
Peter Cooke. "Gustave Moreau's 'Œdipus and the sphinx': archaism, temptation and the nude at the Salon of 1864." Burlington Magazine 146 (September 2004), pp. 609–15, fig. 18.
Atsuko Ogane. La Genèse de la danse de Salomé: L'"Appareil scientifique" et la symbolique polyvalente dans "Hérodias" de Flaubert. Tokyo, 2006, pp. 185–87, 251, colorpl. X.
Geneviève Lacambre inIl Simbolismo da Moreau a Gauguin a Klimt. Exh. cat., Palazzo dei Diamanti. Ferrara, 2007, p. 190.
Kathryn Calley Galitz inThe Masterpieces of French Painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 1800–1920. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. New York, 2007, pp. 68–69, 243, no. 45, ill. (overall and detail, color and black and white).
Kathryn Calley Galitz inMasterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 73, 286, no. 67, ill. (color and black and white).
Peter Cooke. "Gustave Moreau and the Reinvention of History Painting." Art Bulletin 90 (September 2008), pp. 394, 399–405, 408, 410–11, 433 n. 33, fig. 7, and ill. on cover (color detail), suggests that it is Moreau's attempt to "rival Ingres"; discusses it in the context of a "clear line of development" in Moreau's paintings between 1864 and 1869, which endeavor "to renew history painting through the application of an antitheatrical aesthetic to mythological subjects, without abandoning narrative".
Scott C. Allan. "Interrogating Gustave Moreau's Sphinx: Myth as Artistic Metaphor in the 1864 Salon." Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Vol. 7, Spring 2008, pp. 1–21, fig. 1 (color).
Peter Cooke. "Symbolism, Decadence and Gustave Moreau." Burlington Magazine 151 (May 2009), pp. 312, 316, ill. p. 282, fig. 36 (color, overall and detail).
Guillermo Solana. Lágrimas de Eros. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid, 2009, pp. 32, 277, fig. 8 (color).
Peter Cooke. Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism. New Haven, 2014, pp. 2, 15, 28–30, 49–51, 54–57, 62, 66, 68–69, 95, 113, 119–21, 130, 132, 136, 143, 178, 198 nn. 63–65, p. 200 nn. 144–48, p. 201 n. 161, p. 204 n. 29, p. 215 n. 21, p. 216 nn. 26–27, ill. pp. III, 38, fig. 29 (color, overall and detail), discusses the painting in detail with regard to its critical reception at the Salon of 1864, its status as a thematic and stylistic manifesto with regard to history painting, its indebtedness to and attempt to rival Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' "Oedipus Explaining the Riddle of the Sphinx" (1808, Musée du Louvre, Paris), its iconography and symbolism, its role as protest art in reaction to the proliferation of erotic subjects at the Salon, and its influence on Odilon Redon; reviews the literature on it and Moreau's subsequent paintings' relationships to it in terms of an attempt to revive history painting.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 437, no. 354, ill. pp. 363, 437 (color).
This painting was a success at the Salon of 1864, where it won a medal and helped to establish Moreau's reputation.
A painting of the same subject by Ingres of 1808 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) served as a point of departure for Moreau's own interpretation of the theme. Holten (1957) has argued that Moreau derived the posture of the sphinx from a poem by Heinrich Heine. Dorra (1973) believes that the pose of the sphinx is based on the etymological meaning of the word "sphinx"; a paper written on this subject was published in 1863 (see Bréal 1863). Others have suggested that the pose of Oedipus and the Sphinx were informed by Moreau's knowledge of antiquities, knowledge he could have acquired at the Louvre or from books in his and his father's private library (see Helma-Tisserent 1981 and Moret 2000).
This picture has been interpreted as being not only about good versus evil, but about the conflict between the sexes (see Holten 1960). Paladilhe (1971), in a Freudian reading of this painting, notes that at the time Moreau was painting this his father had died and he was projecting in this canvas his unconscious desire to exorcise the castrating influence of his mother. It has also been suggested that this work symbolizes Moreau's own struggle in choosing the life of an artist and having to give up sensual gratification (see Kaplan 1974).
More than thirty studies and many repetitions of this work were made. Julius Kaplan, in Gustave Moreau, Los Angeles, 1974, reproduces the following: a pencil study for Oedipus and a copy after Ingres's Oedipus (in "De Cavalleriis, Antiquarium Statuarum Urbis Romae") of about 1860 (no. 30); a watercolor of Oedipus and the Sphinx of about 1860 (no. 31); a first idea for Oedipus and the Sphinx, in pencil, pen, and ink, of 1861 (no. 29); an undated study for Oedipus, in pencil (no. 32); and an undated study for the Sphinx's wing, in pencil (no. 33).