This painting, by the French artist Fulchran Jean Harriet (c. 1778-1805), takes its name from the last play that the ancient Greek playwright, Sophocles (c. 496-405 BCE), wrote about the unlucky mythical figure, Oedipus. Sophocles’ last play from his Oedipean saga and Harriet’s painting share the same title—Oedipus At Colonus. By this point in the tragic story, a lifetime had passed since old Oedipus ran away from his adopted parents in Corinth, which signaled the start of his uncomfortable journey of self-discovery. Long ago were the days when Oedipus had unknowingly murdered his biological father (King Laius of Thebes) and unwittingly married his birth mother (the widowed Queen Jocasta of Thebes). These taboo acts were eventually revealed, but not before Oedipus and Jocasta incestuously had four children together. When the truth was finally discovered, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus rendered himself blind. In addition to his blinding, Oedipus went into exile and wandered Greece as a social pariah. No one except Oedipus’ dutiful daughters were willing to care for the blind and disgraced elderly man. One of these daughters—Antigone—is in the painting, seen resting over her father’s knees. In fact, the opening scene of Sophocles’ play begins quite similarly to Harriet’s painting, with Oedipus and Antigone sitting down to rest on an uncomfortable stone surface. Sophocles, beginning with dialogue from Oedipus, wrote:
“My child, child of the blind old man—Antigone,
where are we now? What land, what city of men?
Who will receive the wandering Oedipus today?
… [To which Antigone responded:]
Father, old and broken Oedipus, the towers
crowning the city, so far as I can see,
are still a good way off…
Here, bend a knee and sit.
It’s a rough rock, father, but then for an old man
you have come a long hard way from home.”
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, approximately lines 1-20).
It is this scene that is playing out in Fulchran Jean Harriet’s painting. In the artist’s painting (and in Sophocles’ plot), Oedipus and Antigone rest at a place called Colonus, which was near enough to Athens for the Athenian king, Theseus, to stroll out and meet with the father and daughter pair. As told by Sophocles—who was born at Colonus—it was there that Oedipus ultimately died.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Sophocles, Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982, 1984, 2018.