Exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1795, this powerful painting in the tradition of Jacques-Louis David is a rare example of the work of Michel Lambert. For such a patently gifted draftsman, very little is known about Lambert, and what is known has often been confused in the re-telling. He entered the school of the Académie Royale in circa 1778, where he studied under Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié until 1782. His known oeuvre, listed by Bellier de La Chavignerie and Auvrey in 1882 (op. cit.), is reconstructed from exhibition pieces, shown variously in the Salon de la Correspondance in 1782, the Exposition de la Jeunesse in 1784 and the Salon de l’Académie Royale in 1793, 1795 and 1796. However, in his poignantly titled Les artistes français du XVIIIe siècle oubliés ou dédaignés (Forgotten or Ignored French artists of the 18th Century), Bellier de La Chavignerie mistakenly attributed Lambert’s 1782 submission Jeune femme assise, à qui l’Amour dérobe des roses (Love stealing roses from a young woman) to the miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Ponce Lambert. This error likely arose from the fact that this early work was in pastel, a favored medium of the Swiss portraitist.
Michel Lambert, like other prominent students of Lépicié, among them Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Jean-Joseph Taillasson and Henri-Pierre Danloux, was an exponent of the Neoclassical style. Here, he has chosen as his subject a scene from the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays, Oedipus at Colonus. Having been cast out of Thebes by his brother Eteocles, Polynices has come to beg his father Oedipus to rescind the curse that he sees as the cause of the fraternal quarreling. Raging at his son, Oedipus declares that the brothers deserve their fate, which is to die at one another’s hands, because they had previously cast him out. Oedipus prophesies that the brothers will kill each other in the coming battle, crying out ‘Die! Die by your own blood brother's hand – die!…So I curse your life out!’ (Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays, Robert Fagles, trans., New York, 1984, p. 365). Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter and Polynices' sister, pleads with her father for mercy in the face of her brother’s distress, but to no avail. The gathering storm in the upper lefthand corner of the canvas portends Polynices' impending death. Lambert was evidently a keen student of Sophocles, for he had previously submitted Oedipus près du temple des Euménides, Antigone le serre dans ses bras (Oedipus before the temple of the Eumenides, held in Antigone’s arms), a preceding scene in Oedipus at Colonus, to the 1793 Salon.
The figure of Oedipus in Lambert’s composition is heavily influenced by David’s 1785 painting The Oath of the Horatii (fig. 1; Musée du Louvre, Paris). His stance replicates that of the central figure in David's painting, but, rather than holding up his arms, Oedipus extends them in a Roman salute, the distinctive gesture of the three brother’s in David’s composition. Antigone’s graceful supplication may also be inspired by the weeping figure of Camilla, seated to the right of the earlier work. Lambert has similarly chosen to emulate David’s choice of color; Oedipus’ red cloak and blue gray tunic is similar to that worn by the Horatii father, and Antigone’s white and blue drapery can likewise be seen on the distraught Camilla. Lambert would have had the chance to study David’s monumental canvas in his studio in the Louvre, where it hung from the end of 1791 until 1798.
In his fluid, precise execution, Lambert shows himself to be a faithful and worthy student of the great French master. The paint layers are meticulously applied to bring a sculptural depth to the figures, set in stark relief against the dark background. However, where David chose a scene symbolic of loyalty to a Republican state set against an ordered, classical backdrop, Lambert chose a moment of violent rupture in the familial structure set against a wild and stormy hillside. This clever adaption of David’s iconography mirrors the shift that had taken place between 1785, when there were already Republican murmurings in French society, and 1795, only a few months removed from the Reign of Terror and a period when France was struggling to re-establish a peaceful and harmonious society.