Panneau pour Œdipe: Jocaste as well as its sister panel, Œdipe roi, demonstrate Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s interest in the Antique world and his personal response to the Pompeiian wall paintings to which he was exposed during a visit to Italy in 1881-1882.
Based on the Athenian tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, these two panels illustrate Jocasta, the wife of Laius, King of Thebes, and their son, Oedipus. The life trajectory of the eponymous protagonist, Oedipus, and the plot of the story are rooted in a macabre prophecy: that Oedipus would kill his own father and marry his mother. Upon hearing this prediction from an oracle when their son was born, King Laius commands Jocasta to slay the child; however, unable to carry out the order, she gives her son to a servant who takes mercy on him and leaves the infant in the mountains instead. Rescued by a shepherd, in a sudden twist of fate, Oedipus grows up as the adopted son of the childless King Polybus of Corinth.
When he reaches adulthood, Oedipus himself approaches an oracle to help navigate the rumours he hears doubting his legitimacy as King Polybus’ son. To his dismay, the prophecy foretells that he will kill his father and commit incest with his mother. To escape his fate, Oedipus flees Corinth; however, in doing so fulfils the oracle’s tale, killing an old man during a road-side dispute, who is revealed to be his birth father, Laius. Oedipus’ travels then bring him to Thebes where he frees the city of its curse, the Sphinx, and, as a reward, receives the hand of Jocasta, his birth mother, thus completing the prophecy.
When viewed side-by-side, Renoir’s two panels depicting Jocasta and Oedipus illustrate the full tension of the tragedy, their bodies seeming to push away from one another, whilst an unseen magnetic connection– an allegory for the inescapable strength of the prophecy– pulls them together. Renoir skillfully employs dynamic poses to enhance the drama of the narrative, and his vibrant choice of red alludes to the bloodshed in the tale. The artist embellishes the central figures on both panels with grisaille bas-reliefs and trompe l’oeil imitation of columns and stone, a rare example of Antique-inspired decoration within the artist's oeuvre.
These panels were part of a commission by Paul Sébastien Gallimard, the owner of the Théâtre des Variétés on the Montparnasse Boulevard in Paris. Gallimard acquired his first painting by Renoir in 1889 and became one of the artist’s most important patrons. By 1903 he owned sixteen of Renoir’s paintings, coming second only to the fabled collection of George Viau. Renoir and Gallimard developed a close friendship, travelling together numerous times in the 1890s, and Renoir even gave Gallimard’s wife painting lessons after completing her portrait in the summer of 1892.
Beyond his art collection, Gallimard was a well-known bibliophile, passing this passion to his son, Gaston Gallimard, who would go on to found the Éditions Gallimard publishing house, still in existence today.
For one of the rooms in his country house, Paul Gallimard commissioned Renoir to create a series of panels based on Greek theatre. Renoir’s panels reveal a combination of influences, from Ancient wall painting, to Louis XVI panelling and the Directoire style of furniture and ornament. A related study depicting mythological figures that Renoir worked on for this commission is now in the collection of the Musée Picasso in Paris and was previously owned by Pablo Picasso himself. For reasons that remain unknown, the room was never completed and the panels remained in Renoir’s studio until the artist’s death.