Nymph and mortal of the week: Echo and Narcissus

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Echo and Narcissus (1903), oil on canvas, 109.2 x 189.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Although Echo isn’t a goddess as such, she’s an immortal nymph, an Oread or mountain nymph to be precise. Her claim to fame, and the reason for her appearance in some famous paintings, is her love affair with the mortal Narcissus. There are a few paintings of Echo alone, though, who is a challenging subject as her most distinctive property isn’t visual but acoustic, as the name implies.

Zeus had a penchant for nymphs, a habit which Hera didn’t like at all. She therefore periodically checked up on his extra-marital activities. When the loquacious Echo was told by Zeus to keep quiet about his straying, and refused to tell all to Hera, the latter became angry with Echo. Hera therefore stopped Echo speaking of her own volition, and limited her to repeating the last words which had been spoken to her – the personification of an acoustic echo.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Echo (1874), oil on canvas, 97.8 x 66.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Alexandre Cabanel’s portrait of Echo from 1874 does a brave job of eliciting that acoustic phenomenon using an image of the nymph with her head against an acoustically reflecting surface of rock.

There are several accounts of Echo’s ill-fated love for Narcissus, of which the best-known in paintings is that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Narcissus was the son of the water nymph Liriope, who had been raped by Cephisus. When he was young, his mother took him to Tiresias for prognostication of his future. True to form, the prophecy he gave is cryptic:
If he but fail to recognize himself,
a long life he may have, beneath the sun

Later in the youth of Narcissus, he scorned the love of another young man, who prayed that Narcissus should never be able to win his love. It fell to Nemesis to implement this, which she did somewhat clumsily. This became manifest when Narcissus, slaking his thirst in a lonely pool, first saw himself: that was the moment the young man fell in love with his own reflection. Being unable to embrace that image, Narcissus pined for himself, and couldn’t eat or rest because of this burning love for himself.

As he was approaching the age of fifteen, Echo fell in love with him; all she could do was follow him around, watching him being consumed by this passion for himself. When he laid down on the grass and said “Farewell!”, Echo repeated his valediction, and Narcissus died. His final transformation is into the narcissus flower, by which we know him today.

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio) (1571–1610), Narcissus (1594-96), oil on canvas, 110 × 92 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

By far the most famous painting of Narcissus with just his beloved reflection is Caravaggio’s Narcissus of 1594-96. If there is one painting that displays the virtues of masterly chiaroscuro, this is it. It must be one of Caravaggio’s greatest works, and perhaps one of the characters into whom the artist had deepest personal insight.

Jules-Cyrille Cavé (1859–1940), Narcissus (1890), oil on canvas, 99.1 × 198.1 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Jules-Cyrille Cavé’s Narcissus (1890) is unusual for being one of the only paintings which places the young man almost in a kiss with his reflection. Although largely unknown today, it’s another enduring and insightful image.

Those are fine depictions of Narcissus alone, but to tell Ovid’s interwoven story fully, the presence of Echo is all but essential. Such combined works seem to have reached their peak at the end of the nineteenth century.

Ludwig von Hofmann (1861–1945), Narcissus (c 1900), oil on canvas, 149.5 × 95.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Ludwig von Hofmann’s Narcissus from about 1900 captures Ovid’s original echoing wordplay. Narcissus stoops, as if listening for the repetition of the end of his words from the near-mute Echo beside him. It is incredibly difficult for a painting to convey any sound, but I think von Hofmann has just about managed to accomplish that.

Von Hofmann was a contemporary of Lovis Corinth, painted with a not dissimilar style, and like him was a co-founder of the Berlin Secession.

Talbot Hughes (1869-1942), Echo (1900), oil on canvas, 66 × 119 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Talbot Hughes’ Echo (1900) reverses the more popular scene, with the nymph splayed across most of its foreground, surrounded by narcissus flowers, and the ghostly image of a man appearing in the waterfall at the top left, with its poignant reflection. Echo is in a rocky gorge, where we would expect to hear echoes, and holding her right hand cupped against her ear. She even wears narcissus flowers in her hair.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Echo and Narcissus (1903), oil on canvas, 109.2 x 189.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of narcissus flowers are also to be seen at the far right edge of John William Waterhouse’s justly famous Echo and Narcissus from 1903, which combines the young man staring longingly at his reflection, with the forlorn and near-silent figure of Echo stood at the left.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Echo and Narcissus (c 1630), oil on canvas, 74 x 100 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

I suspect that Waterhouse was well aware of Nicolas Poussin’s masterly Echo and Narcissus of about 1630, which shows the final moments of the story: Narcissus is asleep, nearing death, his flowers already coming into bloom beside his head. In the background, Echo looks mutely on, knowing that her love will remain unrequited. Cupid stands still, holding his torch, but his arrow points to the heavens, where Narcissus will travel very shortly.

The following year, Poussin made the figures of Echo and Narcissus central in the foreground of one of his most complex narrative paintings.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Empire of Flora (1631), oil on canvas, 131 × 181 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

His masterpiece The Empire of Flora (1631) includes among its figures:

  • a herm representing Priapus, his phallus wreathed in the greenery of gardens and fertility;
  • Ajax, falling on his sword and his spilled blood turning not into the purple hyacinth but a white carnation;
  • Narcissus and Echo, the former enraptured by his own reflection, with Echo gazing longingly at him, and the narcissus flower;
  • Clytie, who fell in love with Apollo and pined away into the sunflower (heliotrope);
  • Apollo in his sun chariot, with a band containing the signs of the zodiac;
  • Flora herself, presiding over her floral empire;
  • Hyacinthus, killed by his own discus for falling in love with Apollo then turned into the flower, and Adonis, fatally wounded when hunting and turned into the anemone;
  • Smilax and Crocus, unrequited homosexual lovers, who were turned into saffron and rough bindweed flowers;
  • Cupid, with his quiver.
Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) The Empire of Flora (detail) (1631), oil on canvas, 131 × 181 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Desden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.