Fuseli, a native of Switzerland, began his career in England as a history painter. He developed an expressionistic style composed of a unique blend of influences—German romanticism, the monumental vision of Michelangelo, and the physical and psychological exaggerations of the 16th–century Italian mannerists.
Fuseli's own pessimism and fascination with the extremes of human passion are evident. He heightened the intensity of this scene from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus by placing Oedipus and his children in a dark, shallow space. The tragedy of the father's curse is played out through the gestures of the four figures. Polynices, who had expelled his blind father from Thebes and left him to live as a beggar, has come to ask his father's support in overthrowing his brother. Oedipus, enraged at his son's request, stretches out his accusing arms and levies his dreadful curse, by which each son would die at the hands of the other. Ismene, weak and despairing, kneels with her head on her father's knee. Antigone, whose strength and determination have kept her father alive, is highlighted above the terrible drama as she reaches out to protect her brother with one hand and restrain Oedipus with the other. Her gesture, however heroic, is futile.
Sold October 1791 by the artist to William Roscoe. (sale, Liverpool, 28 September 1816, no. 154, as Oedipus devotes to the Infernal Gods His Son Polynices...); purchased by Baxter. (Maltzahn Gallery, London), in 1973; (Weiss Antiques, Zürich), in 1973; purchased 1974 by Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1983 to NGA.
- Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1786, no. 84.
- Gifts to the Nation: Selected Acquisitions from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1986, unnumbered checklist, repro.
- Macandrew, Hugh. "Henry Fuseli and William Roscoe." Liverpool Libraries, Museums and Arts Committee Bulletin 8 (1959-1960): 21, 22, 23, 35 (appendix 1, no. 6).
- Schiff, Gert and Paola Viotto. L'opera completa di Füssli. Milan, 1977: 88, no. 22, 89, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 414, no. 591, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 161, repro.
- Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 75-80, color repro. 77.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 147, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 272-273, no. 220, color repro.
The medium-weight canvas is loosely plain woven; it has been lined. The thinly and smoothly applied white ground almost masks the weave of the canvas. The painting is executed in a variety of techniques. The figures are modeled in opaque paint ranging from thin to moderately thick (it is thickest in the figure of Polynices), with thin brown glazes in the surface layer and slight impasto in the highlights; there are layers of light gray underpainting beneath the flesh tones, and in the case of Polynices and Antigone the contours of the hands are defined by thin red glazes. The background is partly executed in thin brown glazes; where the paint is thicker, notably in the lower right quadrant, there is pronounced traction crackle which suggests the presence of bitumen. The canvas has been damaged by two major tears on the left and by smaller tears in the lower half of the picture, all of which have been restored. The brown glazes, in the figures as well as in the background, have been severely abraded. The fairly thin natural resin varnish has not discolored.