I’ve run across a number of Elihu Vedder’s pieces before, and this one is one of my favorites. This is Vedder’s, The Questioner of the Sphinx (1863, oil on canvas, 36″ x 42″), and is a piece that for me is always inspiring.
The idea of the riddle of the sphinx is ancient, and at the time this was painted the fascination of ancient cultures and especially the Egyptians was in full swing. What I like about this piece is the setting. Not that images of Egypt (or the sphinx) are unusual by any means (See: The Mummy), but the ruins buried in a never-ending sandy landscape make it more interesting, and more mysterious.
Vedder used the darkness of the image to a dramatic effect, isolating his main character. He keeps the details to the edges and into the middle, and the barren landscape, punctuated only by the ruins, helps to further isolate the lone traveler.
I think Vedder’s palette works well here, though I have see slightly different versions online with other colors. This seems to be the most consistent, and in all of the versions none of the color is too bright. Vedder uses the earthy midtones, in a way that actually subdues the drama of the moment. But it is the marriage of scene, detail and those tones that work together to increase the drama of the moment, despite no one feature being dominant.
For me, as an illustrator, I love a piece that tells a story. This one certainly does, and leaves much to the viewer’s imagination. The traveler seems to have come a long way, almost desperate to find any answer to his important questions. Another had apparently been here before to ask questions, with seemingly bad results.
Vedder’s piece brings us to a desolate realm, to a desperate scene. Nature, or possibly the magic of the sphinx, now owns this realm. Will he get his answers? Will he even be able to ask the questions?
That, as in many great works of art, is up to us.