Echo and Narcissus card

Echo and Narcissus

WAG 2967

On display


In this perfectly balanced painting from 1903 by John William Waterhouse, the nymph Echo, perched on a rock, tense with frustrated desire, gazes hopelessly at the languorous, lithe body of Narcissus as he gazes at his reflection in a pool, captivated by its beauty. The story, based on a Greek myth, is from the Roman poet Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. Echo - who must repeat what's said to her - is just one of many admirers - male as well as female - Narcissus has rejected. Taking pity on her, the goddess Nemesis decides to punish Narcissus for refusing love by making him fall in love with his own reflection. Here Echo is so close to Narcissus she can almost reach him, but the water separates her from him forever. And Narcissus himself can never be united with the object of his desire. There's a stalemate. Waterhouse's usual subjects were women as powerful seductresses. But here Echo, despite her obvious charms, is a victim. The focus is the admiration of male beauty, with a warning of the dangers of taking that to excess. Although the appreciation of female beauty by male artists has been central to the erotic in Western art, male artists have also depicted the beauty of the male body since at least the time of Ancient Greece. The popularity of the Greek myths in Waterhouse's day coincided with an interest in the subconscious, and the way mythology seemed to express humanity's deepest fears and desires. Sexuality came under particularly close scrutiny as rapid social change, resulting from industrialisation, stirred up anxieties about the roles of men and women. Sigmund Freud used Greek mythology to explain his theories of psychoanalysis - and published a study of the Narcissus myth only a decade after this painting. Many artists and writers used symbols to represent these deep feelings. For Waterhouse pools symbolized danger, the underworld and the supernatural. In the Echo and Narcissus story only further transformations - metamorphoses - brought about by supernatural forces can break the stalemate depicted here. Echo eventually wastes away to a disembodied voice. Narcissus, unable to tear himself away from his reflection, dies. But narcissus flowers spring up in his place. Waterhouse has included them, next to his feet. They perhaps offer a glimmer of hope. Healthy self-examination is a positive - and self-knowledge is essential for loving another person. For Waterhouse the pool can also represent a mirror - symbolising this search for the soul. Narcissus' mistake is to be so obsessed with his own beauty he can't see beyond it, to his true self and to those who love him.