Narration in Composition: The Visual Analysis of an Ancient Myth

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According to Ancient Greek myth, Oedipus saved Thebes from a terrible beast known as the Sphynx, who made a nest outside of the city and devoured travelers. The Sphynx would ask its prey a riddle: the right answer would allow the traveler safe passage, whereas the wrong answer would lead to the traveler’s death. Oedipus was able to successfully solve the Sphynx’s riddle and kill the beast. In 1808, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres introduced his painted depiction of the scene, titled Oedipus Explaining the Enigma of the Sphynx. The depiction is an oil painting on canvas and illustrates a nude Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphynx within a dark cave. The use of color in the painting adds a unique element of suspense to the scene, as the Sphynx remains eerily nestled in the shadows of the cave. In juxtaposition, Oedipus is at the forefront of the painting, is the largest object in the painting and is bathed in light colors. The proportion of the characters and liberal use of chiaroscuro give Ingres’ painting a striking visual narrative of the ancient Oedipus myth, as well as a commentary on the philosophy of the ancient world. The scene is a depiction of the beauty of the body and the mind.

The proportions of the objects in the painting demonstrate an interesting take on the classical literature piece - Oedipus. The artist shows his knowledge of ancient philosophy within the confines of the painting. The largest and most prominent feature of the painting is the body of Oedipus himself. He is standing at the foreground of the scene in the brightest colors, deep in thought over the Sphynx’s riddle. He stands out against the backdrop of the scene, accentuating his role as the most important motif. (Bietoletti, 2005) The other objects of the painting seem to diminish in size and importance as the scene stretches farther back. This is the strongest evidence for Ingres’ knowledge of ancient myth and philosophy. He takes the nude form (ancient symbol for beauty) of the hero as he is attempting to outsmart the villainous Sphynx. Ingres accentuates two philosophical ideas; he illustrates the importance of physical and intellectual beauty. These two concepts should conqueror other aspects of the human mind: evil (illustrated by the Sphynx), fear (illustrated by the soldier running away) and urbanism (illustrated by the city of Thebes seen from afar). The proportions show a clear understanding of Ingres’ knowledge of ancient philosophy and might indicate his own philosophical ideas.

Ingres utilizes certain colors and color-patterns to demonstrate the mythological themes of the painting and philosophical motifs, as well as provide an interesting and visual narrative of the myth itself. Chiaroscuro is an important technique used throughout the painting, especially within the confines of the cave. Used extensively in art throughout the Renaissance, chiaroscuro is a contrast of light and dark colors. (Yelizaveta, Mat-Seng, & Irina, 2005, pg. 1) The patterns of light and dark add an interesting element to Ingres’ painting. The dark shadows of the cave give a feeling of imposing doom that starts by veiling the Sphynx, then it slowly exudes to cover the upper and lower walls of the cave. In contrast, Oedipus stands below the Sphynx, bathed in light. He gives the viewer a sense of calmness and surety; the darkness will not encompass the hero as he works to destroy the monster in the cave. In addition, Ingres adds a philosophical touch with his use of chiaroscuro. The darkness covers the face of evil and monstrosity, the darkness covers the man running from the monster in fear. The only light within the dark cave radiates onto Oedipus as he stands nude, solving the riddle. The light defines his musculature splendidly, illustrating the perfectness of the human form while the mind is in action. The coloring of the painting adds depth of story and philosophy to the painting.

The overall composition of the painting is quite impressive in denoting the narrative of the myth, in addition to the ancient philosophy illustrated by Ingres. Every line in the painting sets the scene for the myth to unfold while telling its own story. Oedipus stands nude at the forefront of the painting deep in thought over the riddle presented to him, which could result in his living or dying. Ingres painted Oedipus in a pose similar to a statue of Hermes (which shows Hermes tying his sandals). This puts Ingres’ themes of human intelligence and form in a divine sphere; the ancient thoughts on intelligence and beauty are the highest form of enlightened thinking, which can be evidenced by the divine pose Oedipus has. In addition, the colors themselves create an interesting narration of the scene. The chiaroscuro provides an interesting contrast between the roles (and eventually, the fates) of the two prominent objects in the painting. Elsewhere, the color is used to great effect in retelling the myth. “The light in the painting originates from the base, leaving the upper portion in darkness and thereby accentuating the scene’s mood of tragic suspense.” (Bietoletti, 2005, pg. 124) The location of the shadows really provides a unique visual element to the story, as well as an illustration of the philosophical themes Ingres was exploring.

In 1808, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres presented an interesting visual painting relating the famous myth of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphynx to save the city of Thebes. The oil painting utilizes chiaroscuro as a way to narrate the gravity of the scene, as well as present his take on ancient philosophical themes. The Oedipus Explaining the Riddle of the Sphynx painting also illustrates the proportions of its objects to explain the myth and demonstrate the importance of human beauty and intelligence. All of the components of the painting – proportion, coloring, and composition – work in concert to illustrate Ingres’ motifs within the confines of a well-known ancient myth. The importance of physical beauty and mental competency were important in ancient culture and have been reflected in many various forms of ancient art. Ingres models these ancient forms to create his adaption of mythology and philosophy.


Bietoletti, S. (2005). Neoclassicism and romanticism 1770-1840. Trans by Angela Arnone. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing Co.

Yelizaveta, M., Tat-Seng, C., & Irina, A. (2005, July). Analysis and retrieval of paintings using artistic color concepts. In Multimedia and Expo, 2005. ICME 2005. IEEE International Conference on (pp. 1246-1249). IEEE.