An Atypical Review of a Legendary Painting

Oedipus and the Sphinx. An 1864 painting by Gustave Moreau located in the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A slender man wearing nothing but a green sheet falling from his waist and a spear in his hand stares intently at a woman, her eyes penetrating his gaze while her neck, chest, and breasts curve upwards against his body. It seems a mystical force is holding her in position and he is locked in submission–his spear facing downwards.

Captured by the hypnotic aura of the painting my eyes skim the background looking for clues: a serpent slithering around a post, a vase holding something I can’t quite decipher, and a dead man’s foot lurking beneath a boulder. The colors are a mixture of blue, grey hues across the dimly lit sky and rich brown, red, and a tinge of gold saturate the latter half of the painting. But missing the most obvious of them all the woman a beautiful winged creature that I took for granted. She has the arched back of a lion. Her paws lurch onto the man’s erogenous zones.

The story goes that Oedipus, the man featured in the painting, is confronting a winged monster called a sphinx. Oedipus must solve the monster’s riddle to enter the land of Thebes and free the Thebans from her rule. Oedipus is able to solve the riddle and is then offered the hand of his widowed mother in marriage, at the time the fact unknown to him after never meeting his mother or father. Oedipus later succumbs to the tragedy of ripping his eyes out after learning he slept with his mother.

But what demanded my attention after seeing the painting was not the story but the minute of utter amazement as my eyes flicked back to the winged woman, who did not look very much like a monster to me. Her arched lioness body became visible after a second glance.

Walking down a hall of 19th Century contemporary paintings displaying women, nymphs, widows, and monsters I became fascinated with the many forms women could take. In this painting that sparked the Salon of 1864, the female monster called a sphinx wears a crown looking just as beautiful on the upper half of her body as the next ancient Greek woman.