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Oedipus And The Sphinx Painting By Gustave Moreau | The Analysis

Updated: Jan 27

A collage of Oedipus and the sphinx artwork and the French painter Gustave Moreau
Oedipus And The Sphinx, Gustave Moreau Self-Portrait | Source: Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920, The Met Museum And Gustave Moreau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.




Gustave Moreau


Metropolitan Museum of Art


Oil Paint


2.06 x 1.05m

Last Exhibition

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Rodin at The Met," 16 September 2017 – 4 February 2018

Who Was Gustave Moreau?

Before we move to learn about Oedipus and the Sphinx, let us first know a little about the artist who created it. Gustave Moreau was born on 6 April 1926 in Paris, belonging 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.

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

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.

Now that we know about the artist briefly, let us go to our next section, which intends to inform you about the background of the painting related to the artist.

History And The Background Of Oedipus And The Sphinx Painting.

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.

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

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.

Let us now examine the meaning of Oedipus and the sphinx painting, now that you know about its section.

The Meaning Of The Artwork.

You might be awaited for the meaning behind the artwork and so we are here to learn about it. It basically narrates the Oedipus and the sphinx story. Oedipus, the legendary greek prince once confronted the malevolent Sphinx, who 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?

Style Of The Artwork Gustave Moreau Oedipus And The Sphinx.

It is crucial to understand the style of the painting. Moreau used to consider himself a history painter. 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 Odepius 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.

Gustave Moreau Oedipus And The Sphinx Analysis.

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

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 focuses 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.


Colour Analysis Of Artwork.

Gustave Moreau 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.


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.

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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