David to Delacroix: The Rise of Romantic Mythology

By Dorothy Johnson | Go to book overview

3
Ingres and the Enigma

Who of us is Oedipus here? Who is the Sphinx? It is a rendez-vous,
it seems, of questions and question marks

—NIETZSCHE, Beyond Good and Evil (translated by Walter Kaufmann)

In 1808, while on his Prix de Rome fellowship, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in partial fulfillment of academic requirements, sent to Paris a painting of a male nude academy piece, Oedipus Explaining the Enigma, known today as Oedipus and the Sphinx (plate 8). With this painting, Ingres hoped to make his mark on the French Academy and the art world in Paris—like his friend Anne-Louis Girodet before him had done, whose student work, The Sleep of Endymion (plate 4), also created in Rome, had launched his career. Like Girodet, too, Ingres was literary and learned, steeped in the classics, in mythology, and in ancient poetry and theater; he took an avid interest in archaeology as well. He had amassed a considerable library of Greek and Roman classics, including Homer and the Greek tragedians. He had a large collection of illustrated volumes of antiquities from which he sketched and traced. He also collected original Greek vases and small antique sculptures as well as casts, from which he drew copiously. He was an amateur archaeologist, and his learning and extensive visual studies of the antique made a tremendous impact on his art and aesthetics throughout his career.1

Ingres took his inspiration for Oedipus Explaining the Enigma from Sophocles’ play Oedipus Tyrannus, which he read in Pierre Brumoy’s 1763 French translation.2 In the 1790s, Sophocles and the Greek tragedians had experienced a pan-European revival, which led to performances in the theater and opera as well as depictions in the visual arts. The French painter Fulchran-Jean Harriet had exhibited Oedipus at Colonnus in 1796, one of several depictions of the aged, blind Oedipus with his daughter Antigone.3 The visual revival of the Oedipus theme circa 1800 had focused on either the beginnings of the hero as an abandoned infant, as in

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