Liverpool Walker Art Gallery – Artwork of the Month – December, 2006
‘The Death of Oedipus’, by Henry Fuseli
About the artwork
Fuseli took the subject of ‘The Death of Oedipus’ from the play Oedipus at Colonus, the second of the three so-called Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus, King of Thebes, blinded himself when he discovered that, in fulfillment of a prophecy, he had unwittingly killed his own father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, acts which had brought a curse upon the realm of Thebes. The old man, now banished from his own kingdom, but accompanied by his two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, recognises the portents of his death:
‘The gods themselves are heralds of my fate
Of their appointed warnings nothing fails…
This thunder, peal on peal, this lightning hurled
Flash upon flash, from the unconquered hand…’
Later, a messenger describes the scene as the thunder pealed:
Shivered, and crouching at their father’s knees
Wept, beat their breast and uttered a long wail…’
The works of Sophocles, written in the second half of the fifth century B.C., are now regarded as among the masterpieces of Greek theatre, but in late eighteenth-century Britain they were still relatively little-known. Fuseli’s choice of Oedipus at Colonus as the source for this painting tapped into a growing interest in Greek plays.
At the time Fuseli made his paintings, fresh translations of the plays of Euripides and Aeschylus by the Rev. Robert Potter were enjoying a vogue in literary circles in London, and Potter had started work on translations of Sophocles. Fuseli, who as a Greek scholar could read the plays in the original, was thus positioning himself on the cusp of literary fashion while emphasising his advanced tastes.