This painting depicts a tragic scene from ‘Echo and Narcissus’ from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphosis, during which the protagonist Narcissus has fallen in love with his own reflection while Echo, who has become mute in her despair, can only watch from afar.
This painting very much complies with the typical Victorian style the artist had become known for. Soft colours, beautiful figures and a high level of realism characterised Victorian art, all of which is echoed in the work of John William Waterhouse.
While many of Waterhouse’s contemporaries were experimenting with light and tone to create new and interesting pieces, he was simply concerned with faithfully retelling the stories that he loved. Classical mythology and storytelling from across the world played a huge part in influencing his work, this painting being a key example.
Ovid’s poem tells the story of Narcissus the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Lyripe. Narcissus was blessed with devastating beauty causing all who beheld him to fall utterly and hopelessly in love, including the nymph Echo who is depicted here in the painting. Narcissus rejected all of them, apparently without care or remorse.
Echo was so upset by the rejection that she withdrew completely from her former life, being unable to carry on without the love of the man she desired. Eventually she became so withdrawn that she all but disappeared completely and her voice became a whisper, an echo of what it once was.
Moved by the prayers of Echo and others who had been mercilessly rejected by Narcissus, the goddess Nemesis stepped in, causing Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. Being unable to look away, Narcissus stayed on the bank watching his reflection in the water and was eventually driven to madness knowing that he could never touch or be with the object of his desire. He stayed on that spot gazing at his reflection until he died, after which a narcissus flower grew on the spot he had once occupied.
The message here is clear – narcissism, self-adoration and vanity are undesirable character traits which can only lead to a person’s downfall. Additionally, love is dangerous and powerful. It can lead to a despair beyond words. The melancholic longing both figures feel is easily perceived by the viewer and is a key part of what makes this work so compelling.
Famous for his depiction of beauty within his work, Waterhouse has again created an alluring character in Echo with her softly draping robes and partially exposed bosom, but her overall demeanour is one of despair and longing. She is ultimately a tragic figure, but a nymph is a beautiful creature and must be depicted as such. Narcissus too is a figure of beauty – his strong, defined and muscular body laying exposed in a clear juxtaposition to his beautiful, almost feminine facial expression and pose.
This painting is an interesting role reversal on the usual themes of female seduction and beauty seen in Waterhouse’s work. Although the female character seen here is indeed beautiful, it is she who is seduced by the male character who rejects her, leaving her distraught. Tragic characters fill much of Waterhouse’s work, but it is unusual and therefore extremely interesting to see the male seducer portrayed here.
The beauty of the figures is matched by the woodland which surrounds them and provides the perfect location for the tragic story which is playing out between them. Soft, natural colours and a high level of realism further add to the appeal of the painting, but it is the compelling story which holds the key to Echo and Narcissus’s charm.