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The Morning Report — 7/10/24 | Main | Wednesday Morning Rant
July 10, 2024

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Ingres Oedipus1.jpg

Oedipus and the Sphynx
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Far from me is the crime and shame of cowardice, and my valour knows not dastard fears…. The Sphinx, weaving her words in darkling measures, I fled not; I faced the bloody jaws of the fell prophetess and the ground white with scattered bones. And when from a lofty cliff, already hovering over her prey, she prepared her pinions and, lashing her tail like a savage lion, stirred up her threatening wrath, I asked her riddle.
-- Seneca the Younger, Oedipus (c. AD 55)

For the most part, the story of Oedipus is tragic. He was abandoned by his father, the King of Thebes, because of a prophecy that his son would kill him. The boy is raised by poor farmers but leaves them because of a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. He soon meets his real father unknowingly but kills him after an argument. Oedipus then marries his real mother who later kills herself after finding out the truth. In some versions of the story, Oedipus then blinds himself and goes into a self-imposed exile to atone for his crimes. Tucked away in this sad tale is the story of the Riddle of the Sphinx.

The city of Thebes was haunted by a sphinx that challenged passers-by to solve its riddle. If they couldn’t, it killed them. When Oedipus succeeded, the monster killed itself. He became an instant hero and was given the now-vacant throne of Thebes and married the recently widowed queen – his mother. The story of the Riddle presents Oedipus as fearless, intelligent, and clever, important aspects for any classical hero. In this painting, Ingres presents an ideal male specimen, classically perfect in every way.

Oedipus dominates the painting, positioned front and center, framed by the dark cliffs. This provides contrast to his light skin tone and makes me focus on him more. He is fully nude. The bright sunlight adds more highlights to his idealized form. His muscles are tense as he bends over and concentrates on the riddle. He crouches over with a foot raised on a boulder and an elbow resting on his knee. He locks his gaze on the sphinx in the shadows and gestures as he explains the riddle’s solution. In my opinion, Oedipus’s entire body language communicates intelligence and youthful confidence. He looks the monster in the eye and meets its challenge head-on.

The Sphinx is the complete opposite. It hides in a crag in the shadows. According to the story, this beast can kill and devour a grown man, but in Ingres’ interpretation, it is small, about half the size of Oedipus. Ingres shoves it into the corner of the painting. Only its talons and breasts are highlighted. Enlarge the painting and look at its eyes. It looks stunned to me. Its foot is raised in shock and maybe fear.

To me, it seems like Ingres stripped this monster of its power. He robbed it of its terrifying legend and reduced it symbolically and literally. At the same time, he is emphasizing the beautiful male form. Oedipus embodies many of the classical ideals, from intelligence, to courage, to youthful drive, to physical perfection. These are the traits that destroy monsters.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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