A LETTER TO BRYAN OSBURN from Trevor Winkfield

Gustave Moreau’s “Oedipus and the Sphinx” (1864)

METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | PERMANENT COLLECTION


Dear Bryan,

Gustave Moreau, “Oedipus and the Sphinx,” 1864. Oil on canvas, 81 1/4 × 41 1/4”. Bequest of William H. Herriman, 1920. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY.

I’m so glad you’re enjoying the Gustave Moreau book I gave you. I thought it might appeal to the jeweler in you. Alas, you won’t see much of Moreau’s work here in the States—he’s far too complex and “over the top” for most American tastes, which is why his painting “Oedipus and the Sphinx” (1864) is always allocated to such an out-of-the-way gallery in the Metropolitan Museum. They simply don’t know where to put him or what to do with him. Is he the last history painter, a proto-Classicist, a Symbolist, a Surrealist precursor, a wayward early modernist? Or is he an avowed enemy of the “more is less” syndrome? Whichever, I’d highly recommend you make a diversion as soon as possible to see the painting (but be prepared to share your space with Japanese tourists, who seem to be the only people apart from the French who really appreciate Moreau). It’s a long vertical panel, twice as tall as it is wide, so you initially have to stand in the middle of the corridor to get an overall view. Up close, the top half disappears in glare…which is one reason I love Roman mosaic floors—those, at least, one can walk around.

Moreau’s tableau is a two-figure confrontational composition, showing Oedipus on his journey between Thebes and Delphi, at the moment he’s accosted at a crossroads by the Sphinx, who asks him her statutory riddle. Failure to respond correctly will result in immediate death. In other words, it’s a misogynist’s variation on the “boy meets girl” situation. Once you’ve grasped the overall formal layout, it’s advisable to move in closer to read the story better, since the glory is in the details. To begin with, it’s a totally artificial world. Even the story is invented, insofar as mythology is made up, and the Greeks were especially good at envisioning alternative universes.

The lissome Oedipus looks French, not Greek, and he’s made himself comfortable by resting his left elbow on a lichen-covered ledge. His hand languidly grasps a spear, an effete weapon that probably doubled as an elegant walking stick earlier in his journey (though to me it resembles nothing so much as an elongated thermometer…the crimson mercury). He’s virtually naked, apart from his draped cloak, which doubles as a chastity belt and, lower down, splays fan-like beneath the blade of his spear. There are a few extant life drawings for this pose by Moreau, but all his figures immediately turn into antique statuary once they’re rendered in paint. If there’s such a thing as pliable marble, that’s the medium Moreau’s figures appear to be modeled from. Not exactly dead, but otherworldly. Moreau actually had a large collection of antique casts, garnered prior to this painting when he was studying in Italy. And he often sculpted small wax figurines on which to model his characters’ costumes, so maybe that, too, had an influence on his waxen skin tones. A swarthy Greek this Oedipus definitely is not, though a waxwork he may be.

If you ever get a chance to see the nude studies I’ve just mentioned, you’ll notice that Moreau sometimes outlined clothes over their naked bodies, a bit like those printed paper doll cut-outs, to which you could attach various paper uniforms via folding tabs. I think Moreau was a bit scared of full male nudity, but to balance the lack of genitalia here he has lavished loving attention on other anatomical details, such as Oedipus’s delectable nipple. Maybe Moreau was just wary of what the notoriously conservative Salon audiences would think. Anyway, there’s not a penis visible in his entire painted oeuvre…or any body hair, either, regardless of gender.

In compensation, the Sphinx has a nice breast, apparently molded from blancmange. Looking at it, we can understand why André Breton credited Moreau with teaching him all he knew about love, though for my tastes this example is a little too much the “clinging woman” of divorce court legend (and late 19th-century art and literature pullulates with similarly vampiric women): She’s latched onto Oedipus’s body like a bug, glued precariously, as though she’s about to come unstuck any minute. Definitely not digging into his flesh, as Moreau no doubt wanted to imply. Part lion, part eagle, part female, the Sphinx is painted a bit like one of those two-part pantomime horses whose front section is beginning to detach from its rear section. The arched back in particular is unconvincing. But a sympathetic observer could argue that Oedipus’s arrival had caught her unawares at her toilette: With only a strand of red beads around her waist and a tiara circling her brow, she’s relatively underdressed for one of Moreau’s heroines. (Later in his career, Moreau’s figures became so laden with sumptuous jewelry that Degas was led to quip that Moreau would have us believe even the gods wore watch chains.) Despite her undoubted wiles, the story has a happy ending: Oedipus correctly answers the riddle and the Sphinx throws herself off a cliff in despair. Nothing like a woman scorned.

The painting is so full of fascinating details it’s difficult to know when to stop enumerating them. But before you leave, Bryan, you should note the flock of predatory eagles patrolling the ravine that Oedipus has recently traversed, along a precarious path hewn out of the cliff. And note also the opening to another crevice, directly in front of our protagonists, containing the whitened bones and severed limbs of the Sphinx’s previous victims, arrayed in partial view on a red cloak (an ill-defined jumble containing what appears to be Scaramouche’s nose and a child’s tinfoil crown—if intended for an adult crown, it’s not proportionally correct). Immediately to the right of these sad remains, jutting out somewhat incongruously from the crevice, a plinth (or is that an outsize Fabergé cigarette holder?) bears a marble urn in ghostly outline, the Leonardoesque rock formation behind showing through the transparent vessel. The lid of the urn has been painted as though it were a heap of human ashes, with an indistinct blue butterfly hovering above as a symbol of the escaping soul. Well, that’s just amateur sleuthing on my part, and I really don’t hold with high-flown symbolism (in other words, maybe Moreau put the blue butterfly there simply as a color accent). But don’t worry, this is just the kind of painting that doesn’t mind you asking questions—as I very much hope you’ll soon find out.

Best Wishes,

Trevor

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Trevor Winkfield

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