Review of Narcissus by Caravaggio
By: Michael A. Arnold

Have you ever walked through woods on a starless night? It is a strange experience. Holding your hand out and you cannot see it at all. There is nothing but a blank blackness all around you. In that kind of deep darkness, we are completely isolated.

When a light shines in the darkness we cannot help but really pay attention to it. It is like a source of hope - home is not so far away after all. In art the contrast between light and darkness is often used for dramatic effect, or to focus our attention on the important thing being shown. A style of this, called tenebrism (whose name is from the Latin 'tenebris', meaning shadow) can be seen here in Narcissus, painted at some point around 1598 by Caravaggio. A use of extreme contrasts like this, and an illumination on the artist's subject, proved very popular between the Renaissance era and the Modernist, and it is thought that Caravaggio was the one who invented it. At the very least, he had a major part in popularizing it.

Tenebrism can make the subject feel more dramatic and create more of an illusion of the subject being a 3D object. For example, here is John the Baptist also by Caravaggio:


And the style was often used in Spain during the seventeenth century, as part of a 'candlelight tradition' – such as this piece by Jusepe de Ribera, Martyrdom of St Andrew 1628:

Classical subjects are very popular in the history of European art, and even as far back as the late 1500s it would have been difficult to use them in a different and unusual way – but Caravaggio were able to do it in his Narcissus with this very unique use of tenebrism. There is a darkness forever hanging in the background and could be called oppressive.

Oppression may have been on Caravaggio's mind when he painted this piece; it is like something out of a dream landscape with Narcissus longingly gazing into his own reflection. This is a famous story from Greek mythology, about the man who fell desperately in love with himself, and the darkness hiding everything other than the subject means that all we can see is him. Narcissus' obsession with his own reflection is being reflected in the 'obsession' of the viewer.

But there is something big missing here. In the full story of Narcissus, which comes primarily from book 3 of Ovid's Metamorphosis the nymph Echo, who is madly in love with him but is cursed with only repeating the last thing said around her, is supposed to be here too. In Ovid's version, the story builds to a scene where Narcissus dies of his own passion for himself while Echo watches on, only able to repeat Narcissus' words to himself which she wants to say freely 'I love you' and 'goodbye'. It is a really heartbreaking end to the story, but Echo is either not there in Caravaggio's imagination or we the viewers are assuming her role - adopting her obsession.

For reference, here is a more traditional representation of the Narcissus myth, with Echo in our view:


This is the 1909 Echo and Narcissus by the English painter John William Waterhouse. This is much more colorful and there is a detailed background showing a sort of unspoiled Greco-Roman landscape. Caravaggio's painting is very different, but much more interesting.

Passion is isolating, when you really think about it, like the way darkness isolates you. Because Narcissus will never look our way, and the water he is looking into is reflecting an image that is shrouded in darkness, there is a sense of sadness here too. In the classical world, river water was very often associated with the river Styx, which according to legend flowed through the underworld – and in Narcissus' story it was looking too long into his reflection in the water that led to his death. Te image is isolating us and him, and it can only end in death for either of us if we choose to remain too long staring. In darkness there is danger, as there is a danger in obsession. But obsession is also a major theme in all our lives, even if only in small ways for some. However, much pleasure we might take from it, it might be safer to eventually turn your eyes away.