Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Narcissus by Waterhouse

The myth of Narcissus is a famous one.

Narcissus was a beautiful Greek shepherd of fifteen who cruelly scorned all those who loved him, including a nymph called Echo. She followed him around, echoing the final words of his sentences but was so thoroughly ignored that she pined away to nothing until only her voice remained. The Roman poet Ovid is one of those who tells the story and Waterhouse has almost certainly used his account. Here is the story as Ovid told it and Waterhouse painted it.

One day, while hunting in the woods, Narcissus comes to a pristine pool of water and bends over it to drink. Mirrors were almost unknown in those times - especially to rustic shepherds - and when he sees his reflection, he thinks there is a beautiful youth under the water. The youth seems to be alive and responding. When Narcissus smiles, so does the youth. The youth is so beautiful that Narcissus falls in love. He bends forward to kiss the boy in the water and the 'boy' rises up to meet him. But just when the moment of consummation should occur, just when their lips should touch, the boy's image blurs and ripples and Narcissus gets a mouthful of water.

Eventually Narcissus realises it is his own reflection in the water but he still cannot bear to pull himself away. He has fallen in love with himself. Like Echo, who is watching him, he will pine away to almost nothing. He will become a flower, nodding its head over the reflection in a pool. You can see the flower at his feet. The narcissus is another name for a daffodil, which I have always thought is a rather boring flower for Narcissus to turn into.

Notice that Waterhouse has used the same boy model as he used for Hylas and the Nymphs. That dark hair, the well-shaped head, those perfect features, the smooth limbs. He is not at all feminine, but he is beautiful. Waterhouse has painted his sunhat on the ground to his right and his quiver of arrows on his left, just by the edge of the painting. The quiver makes us think of the god of love. In Roman art, Cupid is often shown as a baby with bow and arrows, but in Greek mythology Eros was an adolescent, like Narcissus. He was beautiful and smooth enough to be desired by both men and women.

Today we call someone a 'narcissist' when they are obsessively self-centered and have no empathy for others.

I am basing my next book, Brother of Jackals, around the myth of Narcissus, but in a way it's never been done before. This painting is one of my inspirations. Thank you, Ovid. Thank you, Waterhouse.

P.S. J.W.Waterhouse: The Modern Pre-Raphaelite was an exhibition at London's Royal Academy in 2009. It has now finished.

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