The story of Narcissus is one of the most intriguing tales from Greek mythology. It is an example of Boeotian pederastic cautionary tale – a story meant to teach by counterexample.
Narcissus was the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He was famed for his beauty, causing many to fall hopelessly in love. Their advances were, however, met with contempt and ignored.
One of these admirers was the Oread nymph, Echo. She spotted Narcissus as he was hunting in the woods and was captivated. Narcissus sensed he was being watched, causing Echo to reveal herself and approach him. But Narcissus cruelly pushed her away leaving the nymph in despair. Tormented by this rejection, she roamed the woods for the rest of her life, finally wilting away until all it remained of her was an echo sound.
Echo’s fate was heard about by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and revenge. Outraged, she took action to punish Narcissus. She led him to a pool, where he gazed into the water. On seeing his own reflection, he immediately fell in love. When it finally became clear the subject of his affections was nothing more than a reflection, and that his love could not materialise, he committed suicide. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, even as Narcissus crossed the Styx – the river that forms the boundary between Earth and the Underworld – he continued to gaze at his reflection.
His story has a lasting legacy in various ways. After he died, a flower sprouted up bearing his name. Once more, the character of Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism – a fixation with oneself.
Captured by Caravaggio’s paintbrush
The myth of Narcissus has been retold many times in literature, for example by Dante (Paradiso 3.18–19) and Petrarch (Canzoniere 45–46). It was also an appealing subject for artists and collectors during the Italian Renaissance, as, according to the theorist Leon Battista Alberti, “the inventor of painting … was Narcissus … What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?”.
According to the literary critic Tommaso Stigliani, by the 16th century the myth of Narcissus was a well-known cautionary tale, as it “clearly demonstrates the unhappy end of those who love their things too much”.
Caravaggio painted the subject in around 1597–1599. His Narcissus is depicted as an adolescent wearing an elegant brocade double (contemporary fashion rather than that of the classical world). With hands outstretched, he leans forward to gaze at this own distorted reflection.
In typical Caravaggio style, the lighting is contrasting and theatrical: the extreme lights and darks heighten the sense of drama. This is a technique known as chiaroscuro. With the surroundings shrouded in a sinister darkness, the entire focus of the image is Narcissus himself, locked into a trance of brooding melancholy. The shape of his arms creates a circular form, representing the dark infinity of obsessive self-love. There is also a shrewd comparison being made here: both Narcissus and artists draw on themselves to create their art.
A Lasting Legacy
This ancient tale has inspired modern artists, too. In 1937, the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí depicted the fate of Narcissus in a vast oil-on-canvas landscape. Narcissus is depicted three times. Firstly, as the Greek youth, kneeling at the edge of a pool of water with his head bowed. Nearby is an enormous sculptural hand holding a cracked egg from which grows a narcissus flower. Thirdly, he appears as a statue on a plinth, around which is a group rejected lovers mourning the loss of the handsome youth.
Dalí’s strange and unsettling style, with double images and visual illusions, creates a dreamlike, otherworldly scene, echoing this mysterious ancient myth which has survived the mists of time. Furthermore, Dalí’s interest in conveying the effects of hallucination and delusion are fitting for Narcissus’ story, where characters are tormented and overcome by extremes of emotion.
Dalí composed a poem that he exhibited alongside his painting in 1937, which begins:
“Under the split in the retreating black cloud
the invisible scale of spring
in the fresh April sky.
On the highest mountain,
the god of the snow,
his dazzling head bent over the dizzy space of reflections,
starts melting with desire
in the vertical cataracts of the thaw
annihilating himself loudly among the excremental cries of minerals,
between the silences of mosses
towards the distant mirror of the lake
the veils of winter having disappeared,
he has newly discovered
the lightning flash
of his faithful image.”
Lucien Freud also turned his attention to this myth, creating a pen and ink depiction in 1948. In contrast to Dalí’s epic landscape, Freud zooms in close to capture the details of Narcissus’ face. The nose, mouth and chin are visible, but the eyes are cropped out in the reflection, bringing the focus of the drawing back to the self-absorbed figure.