Caravaggio’s Narcissus (c.1597-9)
Many Caravaggio specialists have recognized that the figures in Caravaggio’s earliest paintings contain variations on his own facial features, what we call face fusion, and some have noted that they are “narcissistic”1. In this slightly later image, the actual figure of Narcissus, who was thought in the fifteenth century to be the legendary inventor of painting, looks down at his own reflection in the water. It is a concise expression of the idea that “every painter paints himself.”
The composition is formed from two semi-circles with his knee well lit near the center of the dividing line. To me, the upper semi-circle resembles the form of an eye with a bright pupil in the middle. If so, the prominence of the arms symbolizes the manual craft of making an image while the “pupil” and darkness surrounding it suggests the inner eye of imagination. One expert has claimed that the horizontal waterline allows us to recognize the water as the river Styx which, Ovid says, reflects Narcissus’ image in perpetuity. Another has suggested that Narcissus’ self-love can be understood as man’s love of God and a desire to be united with Christ.2 If so, this would be perfectly in tune with The Inner Tradition in which one can unite with the divine only by making opposites in the conscious mind unite into one whole. Here Narcissus, looking at “his shadowy double”, combines into in one circle (his own imagination) both brightness and darkness, goodness and evil.
The pose was imitated by a number of later artists including Orazio Gentilleschi, Domenichino and Poussin.3 Artemisia Gentilelleschi, Orazio’s daughter, turned the pose 90 degrees to the left when she painted her own self-portrait. With its clear reference to Caravaggio’s Narcissus, an artist she greatly admired, Artemisia also implies, at least to subsequent artists who could read her visual language, that “every painter paints himself” and that the surface of the painting, like the surface of the water, reflects the artist. The use of her own self-portrait in the painting confirms her interpretation of Caravaggio’s.
More Works by Caravaggio
Learn how a common pose in art carries specific meaning, regardless of subject matter
Looking at how one great master copies another is a useful lesson in seeing the meaning in art
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 13 Jun 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.