The year before Gustave Doré painted L’Énigme, 1870, may sound familiar; the Franco-Prussian war (in which the French fared relatively poorly) happened in 1870 and early 1871.
With that context in mind, the subject of Doré’s bleak painting ought not to come as a surprise.
Looking at the canon and the soldiers, this might seem to be a battleground—yet a little family also lies dead, heaped among the other bodies.
The winged woman with the sphinx, the Musée d’Orsay asserts, represents France—I lean towards seeing her as Nike, goddess of victory (with her wings and laurel wreath), supplanted as much as she is supported by the canny and riddling sphinx.
As in the Franco-Prussian war, technology has triumphed.
The Musée d’Orsay writes that, “according to the catalogue for the sale of the artist’s studio in 1885, Doré had taken inspiration for his painting from two verses of a poem by Victor Hugo:
'Ode to the Arc de Triomphe' (Inner Voices, 1837):
'What a spectacle! Thus dies everything that man creates!
A past such as this is a deep abyss for the soul!’”