The Question

Alternately titled: The Sphinx

Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Physical Description

Medium: pencil
Dimensions: 18 3/4 x 16 in.
Signature: Monogram
Date on Image: 1875
Other production information determined from the object: “The Question” is written in the lower left corner.
Note: The monogram is inscribed above the date in the lower right corner.

Production Description

Production Date: 1875


Current Location: Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery
Catalog Number: 239'04
Archival History: Rossetti Sale, (lot 197). Fairfax Murray

Scholarly Commentary


DGR's letter to Jane Morris of 10 March 1875 specifies the date of this finished drawing and gives his explanation of the picture: “ I have been finishing the Sphinx design I spoke of, and shall enjoy showing it to you. The idea is that of Man questioning the Unknown, and I shall call it either The Question or The Sphinx and her Questioner, but I think on the whole the shorter title is the better. In the design, a youth, a mature man, and an old man, have made their way up a rocky ascent to a platform embowered in laurels which is the shrine of the Sphinx. The youth has fallen in death before he can question the oracle - the man peers into her eyes with his question, but they have no answer, staring at the unseen sky beyond the horizon of the picture - a creek of sea hemmed in with sharp rocks and having only the image of the moon reflected in its centre. Meanwhile the old man still toils up towards the Sphinx, eager to the last for her secret. I have made the design nude, but propose to drape it in some degree when I paint it, which I fancy must be on rather a small scale, for two reasons; one being that to sell a big picture without women in it would be a double difficulty, and the other that a moonlight subject on a large scale is always monotonous. The subject is in fact the same as that of my little poem ‘The Cloud’ [i.e., “The Cloud Confines”)]. See Fredeman, Correspondence75.23.


F. G. Stephens wrote a notice in the Athenaeum (14 August 1875) on the subject of some recent DGR pictures. This article, like so many by Stephens about DGR's work, was largely derived from DGR's own notes, as we see in this case from DGR's long letter to Stephens of 10 August in which he supplies Stephens the following description of the picture: “In this design, the subject represents three Greek pilgrims— a youth, a full-grown man, and an old man, consulting the Sphinx as an Oracle. In the distance, between sharp rocks on either side, in a difficult creek of the sea, is seen the ship which has brought them from afar to the nearest navigable point; and thence they have clambered over the crags to the elevated rocky platform on which the Sphinx is enthroned in motionless mystery, her bosom jutting out between the gaunt limbs of a rifted laurel-tree, and her lion-claws planted against them. The youth, about to put his question, falls in sudden swoon from the toils of the journey and an overmastering emotion; the man leans forward over his falling body and peers into the eyes of the Sphinx to read her answer; but those eyes are turned upward and fixed without response on the unseen sky which is out of the picture and only shows in the locked bay of quivering sea a cold reflection of the moon. Meanwhile the old man is seen still labouring upwards and about in his turn to set foot on the platform, eager to the last for that secret which is never to be known. In the symbolism of the picture (which is clear and gives its title founded on Shakspere's great line To be or not to be, that is the Question) the swoon of the youth may be taken to shadow forth the mystery of early death, one of the hardest of all impenetrable dooms.” ((see Fredeman, Correspondence75.93).


DGR's planned but unexecuted painting was clearly an effort to rehearse Ingres's great painting on the same subject, Oedipe et le Sphinx, which DGR had seen in the Louvre years before.



  1. image

    Angeli, DGR con 107 illustrazioni , 89.
  2. image

    Surtees, A Catalogue Raisonné , vol. 2, plate 350.
  3. image

    Marillier, DGR: An Illustrated Memorial , Facing page 186.
  4. image

    Stephens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti , 91
  5. image

    Phythian, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood , 40.
  6. image

    Radford, Dante Gabriel Rossetti , 54.
  7. image

    Delaware Art Museum print.
  8. image

    Delaware Art Museum print.
  9. image

    Delaware Art Museum print.
Electronic Archive Edition: 1
File Name: s241.rap.xml