In the late 19th century Europe sphinxes were everywhere. Egyptomania, still in full force, helped put these fixtures into European artists imagination, but these Sphinxes were, well, images of saucy female sexuality.
Today we are familiar with The Great Sphinx of Giza, the ancient limestone statue. Egyptian sphinxes which had the body of a lion and a human head were emblems of knowledge and wisdom. However, classical Grecian sphinxes are the focus for most of the pieces mentioned. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was singular, as in the great beast of Thebes that shredded up men raw for fun and licked their gore off her coat. The Grecian Sphinx had the head of a woman, wings of an eagle and a serpent’s tail. Notice how the whole body is a lioness? It’s more of a cadavre exquis monster than a seductive lady beast.
One version of the myth goes like this: the Sphinx was sent by Hera (who else), Queen of the Olympian Gods, to wreak havoc upon the Greek city of Thebes. Why? An oracle told Laius that his son would kill him and marry his wife. Well, Laius, sent his new baby Oedipus away to be killed (didn’t work) then kidnapped and raped a young boy, Chrysippus, as to not make his wife pregnant. I can see why Hera would be outraged. But in a misguided attempt at retaliation, the Sphinx goes around killing unsuspecting young men and boys. She toys with them first by asking them a riddle, which they fail to answer, so she eats them (like she wouldn’t anyway). Like most cats, she likes to sit in high places and basically becomes a gatekeeper to Thebes from her precipice. Seems like the young men had it rough in Thebes.
Here aforetime she stood, fierce uplifting her pallid cheeks, her eyes tainted with corruption and her plumes all clotted with hideous gore; grasping human remains and clutching to her breast half-eaten bones she scanned the plains with awful gaze, should any stranger dare to join in the strife of riddling words, or any traveller confront her and parley with her terrible tongue; then, without more ado, sharpening forthwith the unsheathed talons of her livid hands and her teeth bared for wounding, she rose with dreadful beating of wings around the faces of the strangers.
Statius, Thebaid 2. 500 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.)
Her arc concludes with Oedipus answering her famous riddle and the Sphinx throwing herself down the mountain. In some versions, she eats herself. But, I’m not sure on the physics of that. She is clearly an abomination, a monster, a beast with blood dribbling down her claws.
So why is it that in later art the Sphinx portrayed as so damn sexy?
Remember how in Greek time she only had a lioness body?
Fast forward a few millennia. By the Neoclassical period, the Sphinx has a new pair of breasts sticking out of her lioness body.
And again as you can see in Ingres’ famous piece.
The Sphinx is more tantalizing now in JA Ingres’ iteration. Her very perky breasts are about to blind Oedipus. She’s about the size of a cub, not a powerful lioness, and must his finger be that close. Geez. There’s not much terror here. Even her hair is perfectly coiffed. Terror is slyly hinted at by the bones and man in the background, but c’mon, the focus is on his smooth body and her breasts.
Here’s essentially the same composition from years later, but now her face is turned away in anguish.
Then the Symbolists came along.
Symbolism started as a French literary movement originating in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. There’s a lot of overlay with Gothic, the tail end of Romanticism, and Decadence movements. But essentially in art, it’s a gritty anti-idealistic movement that focuses on Romantic, dreamy or nightmarish images or sexually charged allegories. If it’s not realist or impressionist and features a sultry woman in a nightmarish scene, there’s a chance it’s a Symbolist piece. The latter part of the century was a perfect mixture of angst, a dread of the changing social landscape, and interest in the supernatural.
And the perfect vessel for all anxiety this was the femme fatale.
Enter Gustave Moreau, while a precursor to the Symbolists (which was a term coined in 1886), he later became identified with them and is famous for creating some of the most pervasive femme fatale images.
When Moreau introduced his piece, Oedipus and the Sphinx, to the 1864 French Salon, the critics applauded it and said it stood out amongst the rest. Prince Napoleon bought the piece almost immediately.
Ingres likely inspired the piece, but Moreau pushed the erotic forward. The Sphinx and Oedipus share an intense gaze. She’s, somehow, hanging on to his rather useless piece of fabric, and thrusting her breasts upon him. Oedipus leans away but doesn’t push the beast away. Ingres delighted viewers with the grotesque, but Moreau seems to critique female power.
The painter imagines man as having attained the serious and momentous hour of his life and finding himself in the presence of the eternal enigma. She clutches him in an embrace with her terrible claws—but the pilgrim, noble and calm in his moral power, regards her without trembling. She is the earthly chimera, vile as all matter and attractive nonetheless—represented by this charming head and the wings of the ideal, but with the body of a monster, of the carnivore who rips apart and annihilates. But the strong and firm soul defies the monster’s bestialities. Man, [strong] and firm, defies the enervating and brutal blows of matter. With his eyes fixed on the ideal, he proceeds confidently towards his goal after having trampled her under his feet.
(Moreau, Notebook II, III, 21, in Kaplan 1974, p. 142, translated in Heller 1981)
Now the Sphinx figure became an “attractive” figure, not solely a beast, but a stand-in for temptation and the sexual power of women. Her serpent tail, a small snake curving up the column, and figs to the left hint at original sin. Her body is material and female and therefore a trap. Women’s position in society was shifting and these concerns only grew. Female sexuality was feared and criminal anthropologists argued sexual women are likely to become criminal. (The Idols of Perversity by Bram Dijkstra and practically anything by Sally Ledger or Elaine Showalter are great books to read if you want to explore this topic more.) Suffice it to say, the femme fatale became a fixture in Symbolist and Decadent Art.
When the New Woman came along in the 1870s with her anxiety-inducing bloomers, cycling habits, and non-cooking and cleaning interests, Sphinxes, too, started coming out of the woodwork. And any sexuality teased at in previous incarnations became overt. The Sphinx became a lustful beast if not lust itself. Her crown disappears in new images and her wings are often clipped as if bringing her more to the common material world.
In Franz Von Stuck’s iteration in 1895 his Sphinx is an overpowering sex demon. She’s overpowering the man, who is seemingly a stand-in for any man, not necessarily Oedipus. She’s violently kissing him. She’s grasping him and he’s throwing his hands out in agony or ecstasy. Her winged lioness body isn’t detailed, but her breasts are. Her hair is loose and the background is a mesh of lustful and violent reds. Whew.
Other artists showed the female sexuality a different way, like in this odd image by Belgian Symbolist painter, Fernand Khnopff.
In Caresses the Sphinx now has the body of a cheetah – not a lion. (I’ve read a lot of sources where the body is described as a leopard, but look at the spots!) I liked this image as a child, because one, it’s strange and surreal, and two, (mainly two) I liked cats. But the beast is more of a feminine figure. Cheetahs are more slender than lions, more curved, and ultimately less powerful. Her wings are gone and instead of holding a fierce gaze with Oedipus she’s caressing a rather androgynous figure. She’s more vulnerable looking, her sexuality is toned down (no breasts), but there’s still an element of unease. The figure looks at the viewer while leaning into her caress, like an uneasy dog looking for its master. I’m still not completely sure what to make of this image, but it’s definitely not a scary bloodthirsty monster, but it’s still a depiction of an attractive woman more close to beast than man, unevolved, seducing a man.
Other artists went for more in your face scary female sexuality, with Sphinxes propped up on naked male corpses. At least the petite Sphinxes of Moreau got more oomph.
But soon the facade of half-beast half-woman got thrown off for just a prowling sexual woman.
Frantisek Drtikol, a Czech artist, distills all the misogynistic themes artists used for the Sphinx into one image.
She’s looking quite pleased with her naked self on top of a male corpse. It’s unclear whether she’s forcing herself upon him but it sure seems to show that female sexuality is absolutely deadly. With the beast parts gone, the Sphinx somehow remains a stand-in for women. Not a riddling gatekeeping beast, just a sexual woman who apparently goes around killing men and laying on their corpses.
Another Von Stuck Sphinx piece just shows a woman lying like a Sphinx with her hands in front of her. Really it just looks like a woman enjoying her peaceful nude yoga. But no, she’s, of course, portrayed as a sexy temptress ready to “devour” her next prey. Again, a naked woman alone is to be feared – no talons necessary.
Today it seems like groups are reclaiming the Sphinx as a damn good monster that teaches you not to put all your stock in one gimmick, or maybe not be a drama queen and kill yourself if you fail once. But interestingly Egyptian style sphinxes seem to be more prevalent in modern depictions and are being reclaimed as icons for female and black empowerment, and for critique on society and history.
I wonder how her trajectory will continue. I’d love to see more sexually unavailable beasts.
Here are a two more Sphinxes for your enjoyment.
- Symbolists and Symbolism
- Gustave Moreau: History Painting, Spirituality, and Symbolism
- Les Fleurs du Mal: The Flowers of Evil: the complete dual language edition, fully revised and updated