Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the star pupil of Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David, was the last avid proponent of the French Classical style championed initially by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665).
Fascinated by Italian Renaissance paintings, especially those by Raphael, Ingres’ early history paintings received mixed reviews even after he won the Prix de Rome in 1801. Ironically, he was forced to paint portraits to earn income…
and it is these Ingres paintings that are now most esteemed. It was not until his Vow of Louis XIII that he solidified his reputation: its favorable review in the Salon of November 1824 cemented his role as the defender of French Classicism.
One of his most famous paintings, Oedipus and the Sphinx, is grounded in the myth of Oedipus outlined in Sophocles’ play, Oidipos Tyrannos (Oedipus the King).
After King Laios, Oedipus’ father, is told by an oracle that his son would one day kill him, the King drives a stake through his son’s foot and abandons him on a mountaintop. The young boy, saved and raised by a shepherd family, is forewarned by the oracle that his fate is to kill his father and marry his mother.
Determined to outrun destiny, Oedipus leaves home for Thebes. On his way there, he kills a man who wouldn’t let him pass on the road, and later encounters the Sphinx, a frightening monster with the head, face and shoulders of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings of a bird.
She permits passage only to those who can solve her riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?”. Oedipus correctly answered “Man” in his various ambulatory phases as a baby, adult and old man. In gratitude for his victory over the Sphinx, Thebans offered their widowed queen, Jacosta, as a wife to Oedipus.
Years later when an extensive plague ravages Thebes, the Oracle decries that it will end only when the murder of King Laios is solved. The sole witness testifies that the man Oedipus killed when fleeing home was indeed his father the King; Oedipus’ wife, Jacosta, is biologically his mother so that he has committed both patricide and incest.
The painter had his model assume the identical pose as in the classical statue of Hermes with the Sandal. The pose intentionally accentuates musculature. His torso deviates from any classical ideal, while his profiled head looks like a Greek statue.
To explain such incongruities, the painter stated,
“To express character one can allow a certain degree of exaggeration, which is even necessary on occasions when it is a question of capturing and emphasizing an element of the beautiful.”
Indeed, Ingres is defining (and granting himself) artistic license.
The conspicuous, ghoulish foot in the lower left reminds us:
1. of those who were unsuccessful in resolving the riddle and perished;
2. of the riddle’s reliance on walking;
3. of the meaning of the word “Oedipus” which means “swollen foot” in Greek.
Want to read more? Explore more famous paintings by Ingres, including his Grande Odalisque.