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arts

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Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus  

The myth of Narcissus as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses was probably intended as a moral fable against excessive pride. The son of a river god and a nymph, Narcissus was a beautiful youth loved by both men and women. Because of his good looks, however, he was very proud, and he spurned the advances of everyone who approached him.

The nymph Echo (who had been punished by Juno to repeat the words of all who spoke to her) saw him wandering in the woods one day and fell in love with him. When Narcissus realized he was lost and cried out for help, Echo responded. Eventually she revealed herself, and he spurned her as he had all who loved him.

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To punish him for his pride, the gods cursed him: he would feel the unrequited love he instilled in others. When he bent to drink from a lake, he saw his own reflection and fell in love with it. His efforts to reach out and kiss himself proved fruitless, but because he was so in love with his reflection, he could not leave. He eventually died and was transformed into a flower.

Narcissus, like Ganymede, has functioned frequently in the arts as a symbol of same-sex passion. This meaning has been ascribed to the figure probably because of the affection of men for him and because he finally fell in love with a man (himself). Narcissus has also been seen as masturbatory because of his self-love and effeminate because of his focus on his own beauty.

The term "narcissism" was first used by the sexologist Havelock Ellis to define "self-love." Sigmund Freud later expanded the notion of narcissism. He viewed the Narcissus myth as symbolically homosexual in its context, the love of one for another of the same gender who shares identical interests and appearances with the narcissist.

The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s cites about 100 visual works of art featuring Narcissus. Among the more famous artists who depicted him are Raphael, Domenichino, Cellini, Caravaggio, Poussin, and Lorrain.

Early representations of Narcissus usually show him as a teenaged, sometimes cherubic, youth staring longingly into water. He is often seen in these works at the moment when he has discovered his reflection.

Late Baroque and Rococo depictions often place Narcissus in Arcadia and tend to emphasize the idealism of classical culture rather than the myth itself.

More modern representations are narrative and illustrate the temptation of youthful beauty. Solomon J. Solomon's Echo and Narcissus (1895) shows Echo swooning over Narcissus while the handsome youth ignores her and stares at his reflection. Gustave Moreau's Narcissus (ca 1890) depicts the youth nude as an odalisque surrounded by lush foliage, his eyes staring at the viewer rather than at himself.

Roberto C. Ferrari

     

 
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Top: A Pompeiian wall painting of Narcissus.
Above: Narcissus (ca 1596) by Caravaggio.

  
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literature >> Overview:  Classical Mythology

The Greco-Roman myths concerning same-sex love have been of crucial importance to the Western gay and lesbian literary heritage, both as texts and as icons.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Neoclassicism

Homoeroticism is a prominent presence in neoclassicism, an artistic movement noted for its masculine style, its appreciation of male beauty, and its privileging of ancient Greece and Rome as civilizations to be emulated.

arts >> Overview:  European Art: Nineteenth Century

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arts >> Overview:  European Art: Renaissance

The various cultural patterns, especially the conditions of artistic production and the types of subjects and themes represented, provide a great deal of evidence about Renaissance sexuality and art.

arts >> Caravaggio

The most original painter of early seventeenth-century Europe, Caravaggio imbues his art with homoeroticism.

arts >> Cellini, Benvenuto

Sculptor, goldsmith, memoirist, and flamboyant pederast, Benvenuto Cellini is one of the greatest artists in the history of Western art.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

social sciences >> Freud, Sigmund

The founder of psychoanalysis and the discoverer of the unconscious, Sigmund Freud initiated a fundamental transformation in the self-understanding of Western men and women, including especially the role of sexuality.

arts >> Solomon, Simeon

Known for his association with the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement, British artist Simeon Solomon created homoerotic works and suffered as a victim of late nineteenth-century English homophobia.


    Bibliography
   

Reid, Jane Davidson. "Narcissus." The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 2:692-702.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Ferrari, Roberto C.  
    Entry Title: Subjects in the Visual Arts: Narcissus  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 13, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/arts/subjects_narcissus.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  
 

 

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