We all know the story by now. Narcissus, a beautiful youth, sees his reflection in a pond and falls in love with his image. Yearning to touch the handsome face staring back at him, but realizing that he cannot, Narcissus pines away and dies. After death, in his place sprouts a flower bearing his name.
When you look at Gyula Benczúr’s Narcissus (1811), however, you have to wonder whether there’s more to the story than this — some hidden layer of meaning that you missed. Perhaps there’s the inkling of a doubt that you never understood Narcissus to begin with, his story having been flattened by the pathology of narcissism, the psychological disorder whose name he inspired.
Beauty and Youth
Against a dark background we see the naked figure of Narcissus, with nothing but a worn cloth wrapped around his hips. As he leans over a black wall, in pure rapture, the light falls dramatically on the arc of his upper body, chiseling the intensity of the moment and revealing the tension stirring in his torso.
Narcissus’s face is beautiful, with a perfect eyebrow arch that continues the arc of his flexed body and crowns his half-closed lid, his eyes lost in the haze of a dream. A pink blush warms his cheeks with the freshness of youth and sensual warmth, while his full lips seem to be longing for the softness of another’s skin.
There’s something of both old and new about this Narcissus.
Old, as in Old Masters’ realism and treatment of light, a painting that in style could have been created a few centuries earlier. There’s a striking resemblance between Narcissus’s face and arching body and Caravaggio’s naked devilish Cupid in Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-1602).
The painting also seems new, despite having been created in 1881, as it carries with it the flow and movement of a contemporary dance performance.
And look how Narcissus’s right hand is positioned, as if he’s playing the keys of an imaginary piano. Clavicula, the Latin term for collarbone, means “small key”, making the musical association all the more memorable when looking at Narcissus’s hand in proximity to the clavicle, which Benczúr makes sure to emphasize.
Behind the Wall
The focal point of the painting is the collarbone, where the light lands most dramatically on Narcissus’s body. Following the diagonal line formed by his shoulders, we get to the intersection with the slanting of the black wall — barely visible to the left, but springing forth to the right — where half of the youth’s left arm is suddenly hidden from view. That is where Benczúr wants us to look most intently. There is something behind the wall, something that enraptures Narcissus.
Can you guess what it is?
If you’re familiar with the story, then your mind will have already seen the body of water behind the wall, with Narcissus’s reflection beseeching him.
This was an interesting choice by Benczúr, to not show the water and the reflection, and simply focus on the act of loving, on the subject himself. As viewers, by seeing just half of the story, our minds are not confronted with the object of adoration, with Narcissus’s delusion, and we can better appreciate the tenderness that he feels in that moment.
Benczúr’s decision is also an act of breaking with tradition. Some of the most memorable depictions of Narcissus in art history — like Caravaggio’s and, later on, Salvador Dalí’s — contain the pond as a central element, an association that still endures to this day.
The Artist’s Condition
I like Benczúr’s Narcissus. So much so that for a moment I can easily forget about mythology and psychological disorders. I like him not because he’s handsome — which he is — but because he inhabits his beauty as a state of being. It’s rhythm, it’s passion, it’s as natural and free-flowing as the stream of blood coursing through his veins.
Narcissus likes his rapture, too. So much so that he’s oblivious to death rotting away his legs. And why would it matter, anyway? Benczúr obscures the decay in a veil of darkness. Not even death can take away this moment of being, of pure bliss.
You see, this Narcissus makes me think of the artist’s condition. Artists who love what they create and get lost in their work. Who pour themselves and, therefore, reflect themselves in their art. Who even when they’re gone, they leave trails of beauty behind. And who sometimes get consumed by their own creation.
I’m comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in thinking this. As a much wiser man, Italian Renaissance humanist Leon Battista Alberti, asked in his 1435 treatise De pictura (On Painting),
“I used to tell my friends that the inventor of painting, according to the poets, was Narcissus … What is painting, but the act of embracing, by means of art, the surface of the pool?”
Note: If you haven’t had the chance to read the original story of Narcissus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, then I hope that this painting will make you curious about it. It all starts with a cryptic prophecy.