Day 94 – Narcissus

Claude, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644, National Gallery, London.

I last talked about Claude, one of the great innovators of landscape painting, when we were exploring the story of Psyche, and if you want to more about him, and why I think this artist who produced all his work in Italy was not really French, you might want to read (or re-read) Picture Of The Day 46. Today, I am adding to a mini-series on reflections, in preparation for my talk on Velázquez this coming Wednesday – although I doubt that this painting will make it into the talk!

Claude, 1604/5?-1682, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644, Oil on canvas, 94.6 x 118.7 cm https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG19

The story of Narcissus and Echo is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, although the version I shall tell you is very much my own, honed by a couple of decades telling it to school groups in the National Gallery. Claude’s telling of the story might seem almost incidental. After all, the four characters depicted in the foreground take up relatively little space on the surface of the painting. The composition is typical Claude: dark trees take up the upper left-hand corner, with a shorter, lighter tree on the far right of the painting, still dark against the sky. These trees, growing in the middle distance, frame a view of the distant landscape, itself composed in a similar way, with a castle, darker than the luminous sky on the left, and a mountain, not as high, on the right. The foreground is the darkest part, getting gradually lighter as our eyes move towards the horizon. We are almost compelled to look to the distance, drawn towards the light. However, as so often with Claude, the sun is far higher than you might expect, above the castle, about a third of the way across the painting from the left.

Even if we get in closer the figures are not exactly prominent – we have to seek them out amidst the gloom. It is almost easier to see the port on the shoreline, two ships out to sea, with smaller vessels gathered around. A bridge crosses the mouth of the river, just to the left of what could be a castle. Closer to us a shepherd, following his flock, is about to cross another bridge going over a gully (on the far right of this detail). The river presumably winds its way as far as the foreground of the painting, although its route is lost behind hills and vegetation. The woman lying naked at the bottom of the picture rests her right arm on a jug pouring water – she is the source of this stream, and so the goddess of the river which flows down to the sea. Without her we would not have the pond with its mirror-like surface. Curiously X–rays have shown that Claude did not paint her naked – she has been subsequently undressed, her naked body painted over Claude’s clothes. Why not remove her? Well, the X–rays cannot specify how much of the original clothing remains, and were the nude removed, there might be precious little underneath – and by now she is part of the history of this painting. 

Above the River Goddess, in the foliage, there are two women looking down. The higher of the two seems content to look, holding back the branches to get a better view. The lower of the two lifts her left hand to call out.

They have come to see this man, leaning on one arm, peering down to look at the pond, his left hand raised – looking in awe at his own reflection. This is Narcissus, one of those people who was so unbelievably beautiful that absolutely everybody fell in love with him. But, of course, just because you look good on the outside doesn’t mean that you are good on the inside – and he was incredibly vain. Girls would go up to him and declare their love, at which he would just look down his nose at them, and say, ‘But you’re not good enough for me’. And before long this little corner of the Ancient World was literally littered with love-sick maidens. The gods and goddesses got together and decided to teach Narcissus a lesson, sending Cupid to make him fall in love with someone who would make him very unhappy. Cupid did as he was told, and shot him with one of his best golden arrows, so that Narcissus would fall in love with the next person he saw. Inevitably, because he was so incredibly vain, the next person he saw was his own reflection. Bewitched, he had no idea what was going on, and fell instantly and desperately in love. He said ‘Hello’. He said ‘You’re beautiful’. He even got as far as ‘I love you’ before realising that there was no reply. The beautiful boy was silent. So he tried ‘Why don’t you talk to me?’ but still got no response. So he reached out – and instantly knew he was onto a good thing, because as he reached out to his new-found love, the love reached out to him. In his enthusiasm Narcissus went to grab him, but a strange thing happened – he realised he was wet, in a pond, and the boy had vanished. This was not one of the side effects of love that he had been warned about. Still, he pulled himself together, climbed out, sat down, dried off… and when he looked back, the boy had returned. This time he was more cautious, reached out slowly – and the boy reached slowly back. He was clearly very timid, though: just as they touched, he disappeared. He must have run away. ‘I’ll wait till he comes back’, thought Narcissus. And then when he did, he just looked down, lifted his hand to hear the boy speak (in case he was very quiet) but he didn’t want to scare him away again so he stayed very still. He just… looked. And… waited… And…

Meanwhile, one of those girls who had fallen in love with him decided to take matters into her own hands, and headed out into the countryside to find him. Not only that, but she took one of her friends along for moral support – you know, the way girls do. Maybe the ‘my friend really fancies you’ approach would work. But in the end, she couldn’t wait, and called out to him herself. There was only one problem with that – she couldn’t speak. Or rather, she couldn’t speak any more. She used to speak a lot. You probably know one of these people – they seem to be able to talk constantly without drawing breath, and certainly without listening to a word that you ever say. She made the mistake of doing this to Juno once, when the Queen of All the Gods was on her way to stop Jupiter from indulging in one of his affairs, and Juno got so angry that she cast a spell on her. She could no longer speak – unless someone spoke to her first. And even then, she could only repeat what she had just heard. So you’d go up to her and say ‘Good Morning’ – ‘Morning, morning’ would be her reply. This was Echo. So here she is, desperately in love with Narcissus, who has already rejected her, and she wants to shout out to him – but she hasn’t heard anything so she can’t. And he’s not paying her any attention. I mean, even the River Goddess has taken off all her clothes, and he’s not paying her the blindest bit of attention either. He’s only interested in himself. What a Narcissist! Still – he says ‘Hello’.

So Echo replies ‘Hello! Hello!’. 

‘You’re beautiful’

‘Beautiful! Beautiful!’

‘I love you’

‘Love you – love you!’

‘Why don’t you talk to me?’

‘Talk to me! Talk to me!’ 

And there they were – stuck in the forest, she was transfixed, he was transfixed, though gradually with the dawning realisation that this was his own reflection, and it could never love him back. And the gods realised that, even if they had taught him a lesson, their plan had backfired. They didn’t want the countryside littered with the lovelorn, so they decided to make them fit in – and changed them – transformed them – metamorphosed them into something that did. Narcissus became… a narcissus. Next Spring, when the daffodils come back out, just have a look at them – they really do look as if they are looking down at their own reflections going ‘you’re gorgeous’. And in the detail above, on our side of the pond, just to the right of the River Goddess’s feet, Claude has painted some narcissi. And Echo? What happened to her? Well, she was so much in love that she simply pined away. She faded, and became invisible, and now she hangs out with the wind in all the sad and lonely places – caves and tunnels mainly – and whenever you call out to her, she will call back to you.

Claude, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, 1644 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG19

As I said before, the elements of this story seem tiny compared to the painting as a whole. You could cover Narcissus and his reflection with one hand, and it would turn into Landscape with nude and two women peering – no narrative at all.  And yet, as in The Enchanted Castle (POTD 46), the whole painting exudes the same bitter-sweet sadness, the same melancholy as the story. That was Claude’s great skill.

He does this with the placement of the sun, up in the sky, behind one of the smaller branches of one of the larger trees. It lights the clouds across the sky from the left, and the ones just above the castle, from above. Even in the detail of Narcissus, we see it lighting his left shoulder and leg, and even the side of his right arm, with which he props himself up. It is this Autumnal light which unifies the whole painting, and casts the melancholy mood. Narcissus might be small within the painting, but the whole painting tells his story. 

And the moral of the tale? It seems a little simplistic to settle on ‘don’t be vain and don’t talk too much’. This story speaks very powerfully about the power of speech – and the magic of art. We can fall in love with an image, but shouldn’t we get to know what is beneath the surface? If art is the mirror of nature, should we be wary of falling for its spell? Is the artist really reflecting what he sees, or creating a world of the imagination? And is what he creates any more ‘real’ than the reflection in a mirror? I think the answers to these questions will be different for each of us, depending on what we want art to be. I’ll leave it up to you.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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