Sunday, 9 November 2008


“Fate laughs at probabilities.” - E.G. Bulwer-Lytton

A painting by the 19th century French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. It is an example of the popular “orientalist” movement popular at the time, where things exotically Eastern were depicted with enthusiasm. This school was particularly popular in France amongst the circles of the Academy painters (the one abhorred by the impressionists), which produced highly polished works the subject matter of which often allowed depictions of nudes, and which were therefore quite saleable.

This painting is an interesting as it depicts Napoleon during his Egyptian campaign, gazing at the Sphinx of Giza. It is titled “Oedipus” and is a reference to the Greek myth. Oedipus was the one who was separated from his royal parents as a baby after an oracle foretold of tragedy and death which would be caused by him. Instead of being killed, Oedipus was taken into the forest, abandoned there an found and raised by shepherds. When he grew up he went back ot Thebes, on the road meeting the Sphinx, which asked him her famous riddle, which had been the undoing of many before him:

“What is that goes with four legs in the morning, Two legs at noon and Three legs in the evening?”

Oedipus successfully solved the riddle and destroyed the Sphinx. Unfortunately he went to unknowingly kill his father and marry his mother, fulfilling the prophecy.

Gérôme makes a poignant statement about Napoleon in this painting, hinting at the conquest of Egypt, Napoleon’s rise to power and his subsequent downfall and ignominious end, just like a new Oedipus.

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