This painting, by the French artist Jean Antoine Théodore Giroust (c. 1753 – 1817), was inspired by the life of Oedipus, perhaps one of the unluckiest figures of ancient Greek myth. Oedipus is represented in the painting by the shirtless man with his legs draped in red cloth, seen sitting on a carved stone. He is surrounded by his daughters: Antigone and Ismene. As for the man wearing a helmet on the left side of the painting, he is Polynices—one of Oedipus’ sons.
In the chronology of Oedipus myths, this painting is set near the end of the long and tragic saga, but we can briefly summarize the preceding events of his unfortunate life. Oedipus was the son of King (or Tyrant) Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. When Oedipus was still a baby, King Laius learned from an oracle that he would be killed by his son. Due to this prophesy, baby Oedipus was abandoned by his family, but the agents tasked with disposing of the child decided to give the baby another chance and arranged for him to be brought to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who adopted Oedipus and raised him as their son. Although Oedipus loved his adoptive family, he still had questions about his true lineage. His search for the truth led Oedipus to another prophesy—that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Hearing this, Oedipus decided to never return to Corinth (to spare his adopted parents from possible harm), and he instead turned to a life of wandering and adventure. Unfortunately, Oedipus chose to travel in the direction of Thebes.
On the road, he ended up killing a man who turned out to be his real father, King Laius. Continuing on, Oedipus encountered and defeated a sphinx near Thebes, which led him to marry the widowed Queen Jocasta and become king of the Thebans. Oedipus and Jocasta (who were not aware of their mother-son connection at the time) had four children—the fourth, not shown in the painting, was Eteocles. Although the family lived in happy ignorance for a time, the truth eventually came out, which had devastating consequences for Oedipus’ family. After discovering the truth, Jocasta ended her own life; Oedipus, in turn, blinded himself and abdicated his power to go into exile.
Oedipus’ daughters stood by their father and continued to actively care for him as he wandered in exile. In response to the devotion of his daughters, Oedipus truly doted upon Antigone and Ismene. The relationship between Oedipus and his sons, however, was not warm at all. Whereas Antigone and Ismene followed Oedipus into exile, caring for their blind father’s every need, the sons contrastingly abandoned dear old dad to wage war for the throne of Thebes. Nevertheless, a prophecy soon emerged that claimed whichever city hosted Oedipus’ tomb would be granted victory. When this prophecy was spread, both of Oedipus’ sons immediately had a change of heart and wanted to see their father again…at least so they could build his tomb on their territory in the near future. And that brings us to the scene painted above—in it, Oedipus’ son, Polynices, has come in an attempt to convince his father to join his faction in the civil war. Polynices was on the losing side of the conflict, forced to flee from Thebes and relocate to Argos, and it was that Argive city that he wanted to bring his father. Oedipus, as can be seen in the painting, was not keen on his son’s offer. Instead, Oedipus launched into a vitriolic tirade that was filled with curses for the sons that had spent years not displaying any affection, love or respect for their exiled father. For this scene, the Athenian playwright, Sophocles (c. 496-405 BCE), armed Oedipus with linguistic daggers such as:
“But off to damnation with you, abhorred by me and disowned! Take these curses which I call down on you, most evil of evil men: may you never defeat your native land, and may you never return to the valley of Argos; I pray that you die by a related hand, and slay him by whom you have been driven out. This is my prayer. And I call on the hateful darkness of Tartarus that your father shares, to take you into another home; and I call on the divinities of this place, and I call on the god of war, who has set dreadful hatred in you both. Go with these words in your ear; go and announce to all the Cadmeans, and to your own faithful allies, that Oedipus has distributed such portions to his sons” (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, approximately lines 1380-1395).
After hearing this emphatic speech, Polynices gracefully accepted defeat and walked away, disappointed and doomed. Oedipus’ prophecy came true, as Polynices later attacked Thebes, which was held by his brother, Eteocles. In the ensuing battle, both brothers were killed and their uncle, Creon, became the undisputed leader of the city. Meanwhile, Oedipus met a mysterious, supernatural end in the region of Colonus, Athens, and his daughters thereafter returned to Thebes. There, as could be expected from people in Oedipus’ family, their fates were not kind.
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.