Mirrors in Water: The Story of Narcissus

My recent posting about Narcissus could have slightly surprised an attentive audience of this blog: what is exactly the relevance of Narcissus to my mirror stories – he is looking at water, at the end? There are also no mirrors in the work of Caravaggio (nor are in this painting by Dali, by the way).

On the other hand, if I would want to push the envelope, as they say, I could always exclaim “Wait, look, they are almost the same, mirrors and water surfaces – both reflect! and both reflect us! What’s the difference?” 

Actually, today I was going to talk exactly about these matters, of water and mirrors, and what story could work better for this purpose than one of Narcissus? Of all the possible cover pics for such story Caravaggio’s Narcissus would be the best, but I used it already, and so I decided to settle on the second-best, by Salvador Dali – Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937).  I will come back to Caravaggio later in this posting, but let’s stop for a second on the work by the famous Spanish surrealist.

Here’s another interesting picture, this time of Dali himself:

It’s made in the late 1930s, in Spain was it near Malaga? We’ve been there once, and I was amazed by the shapes of the rocks, every of which could work as a projective test. I took a lot of pictures, but can’t find them back quickly, alas. Perhaps it was the shapes of these very rocks that inspired Dali to paint his palm-holding-nut Narcissus? Or may be the photograph was already a funny self-homage, a re-enactment of the painting already completed? I do not know.

Worth adding that in addition to the painting Dali also wrote a small poem. It’s in Spanish originally, which I don’t know, so I copy here the English translation (I am sure it misses some delicate nuances, but still is very beautiful):


in his immobility,
absorbed by his reflection with the digestive slowness of carnivorous plants,
becomes invisible.
There remains of him only the hallucinatingly white oval of his head,
his head again more tender,
his head, chrysalis of hidden biological designs,
his head held up by the tips of the water’s fingers,
at the tips of the fingers
of the insensate hand,
of the terrible hand,
of the mortal hand
of his own reflection.
When that head slits
when that head splits
when that head bursts,
it will be the flower,
the new Narcissus,
Gala – my Narcissus.

Everything is interesting here, the text, and the picture, and the whole Dali, too… but I would digress too much if I start elaborating on his ‘mirror’ works; I better park it for one of the next postings [NB: I eventually did write a separate posting about Dali’s mirrors, you can read it here]. 

To Narcissus himself.

A simplified version the myth of Narcissus goes as follows:

“Once lived a boy (of the divine and/or Earthly origin), who was, apparently, a sociopath – he did not like neither male nor female society, although the members of the latter liked him very much (he was very handsome). Or may be he was just an autistic kid not able to communicate with his peers?

“During his late puberty, the boy (or young adult) happened to wander somewhere deep into the woods, where he bend over a creek and saw his own reflection in the water. Looks like this happened first time in his life, since he was so shocked (with his own beauty, that is, they say) that he immediately fell in love with… whom? himself? or somebody else he thought he saw in this reflection? (because again, he hadn’t seen himself earlier, and wouldn’t know his own appearance).

Basically, everything ended pretty badly then. He died, and the death was apparently very painful.”


Ok, if we consider a more elaborated version, we would encounter multiple nuances in this story (and some of them are able to completely change the meaning of the whole plot.)  To start, anyone can read a short summary of the events here. Over time many smart people spent significant amount of time and efforts to telling, interpreting and re-interpreting this story. I can’t really compete with this massive volumes of ideas –  at least, can’t do it right now, although eventually I would love to both read more and tell more about all these narcissistic issues here, in my mirror blog, too.

Speaking chronologically, the myth existed already in ancient Greece (Νάρκισσος is a Greek name) and may be even Greeks took the legend from someone else who lived earlier. But it is Greece where we find the first frescoes depicting this story:

Where, by the way, Narcissus doesn’t look at himself in water, he is just sitting by, glancing somewhere far. Nevertheless, we see his face reflected in water (which is not possible, of course, if to follow the laws of optics).

However, it was not Greeks but Romans who introduced this myth into current culture, through the Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Ovid’s story is much more complex than the abridged and psychoanalytically colored version I wrote above, and includes many other important figures, including the semi-goddess Echo. As it happens to be, the adventures of Narcissus are not the result of his personal traits or his particular stupidity or naivety, but rather a punishment sent to him by the gods (for the humiliation of Echo, if to be precise). The original is longer, but a way more interesting than my SouthParkish digest.

But in this whole complex story I need to focus on one aspect, namely, on the use of water surface as a mirror. It’s very important to sort out this issue: either explicitly or implicitly it is always present, as if a shadow, in the multiple stories about mirrors, and interpretations thereof.

The history of mirrors, in the shortest form possible, can be presented in a following way:

– glass mirrors appeared about 800 or so years ago (some semi-legendary sources say about 2 thousand years, but let’s ignore it for a second);

– before that (2,000? 3,000 years BC ) people used metal (bronze) mirrors, and before that (4,000 BC?) some “polished/ obsidian stones”. It’s very recent technology, indeed, if to compare with an entire lifespan of humanity;   

– and then comes the water. Water, of course, which is with us from the times immemorial. Everybody could look into water and see his/her reflection!

Here is, for example, the painting by Edward Coley Burne-Jones, of the late 19th century, called “The Mirror (sic!) of Venus” (and in some version even “The Mirror of Nature”:

It is a remarkable illustration of this concept, “water as a mirror”; here the surface of the water perfectly reflects both the figures and the faces of these young (narcissistic?) ladies.

This phenomena, the reflection of the figures in the water, has to be very familiar to any person. When typing the word “mirror” in the Google image search, we often get the pictures like the one below (which is, not surprisingly, called ‘Matterhorn Mirror’):

Notice, by the way, how blurry becomes the mountain when reflected in the water (in this case almost perfectly calm and smooth). In real life such stable and still water surface are very, very rare.

But perhaps we can get even sharper reflection in the artificial water basins, where the surface can be completely still? The same Burne-Jones has another illustration of such case:

The painting is called The Ominous Head (1885); another name is The Baleful HeadSometimes the work is described as Narcissus and Echo (simply because all the figures look into the water here), but this is an incorrect interpretation. The painting shows Perseus showing Andromeda the head of Medusa he slain.  To avoid being turned into a stone (they believed that the gaze of Medusa would do you a harm even when she is dead) they look at her head through reflection in water; they also believed that water (or any other reflective surface would somehow absorb the harm of the Medusa’s gaze.)

But my point here is to show how accurately rendered in water the reflections of all three heads; even the color palette is fully preserved.

That’s not possible, of course, as I’ll try to show later. 

Interestingly, Burne-Jones also has a picture of the ‘real’ Narcissus, looking at himself in some sort of artificial fountain:

Here we indeed see Echo (blended with the rocks), but no reflection in water is shown at all.

This universal belief, that a fountain or a bowl with water can provide one with an accurate reflection of his or her face, lead to the ‘discoveries’ of multiple basins and fountains that had been allegedly used in the ancient times as ‘public mirrors’.

Typically, the ‘evidence’ is a picture like the one below, which is interpreted as an “antique public mirror”; this one is from the town of Pompeii, but there are many similar “water mirrors” in Turkey, Greece, and elsewhere, too:

One of the most popular contemporary reenactments of this ‘old technology’ is presented in the famous movie about the eagles:

You can see the full episode here; do notice a wonderful design of the place. The clip also show how awkward is the whole process, of seeing at yourself top down:

It’s interesting that the entre scene is rendered in bluish hue, so that the diversity of colors disappears. In this way no one would notice that the colors can not be reflected accurately in any water reflection.

I made a small experiment and try to took a picture of in such ‘water mirror’; the pan was craw-black, and water surface completely still; and that what you see:

Not only it’s very fuzzy, but also decolorized; you wouldn’t be able to recognize nuanced skin colorization in such reflection, for example. And of course the slightest push results in in total destruction of the image:

Which means that even in the best case what can be seen is a silhouette, a fuzzy outline of the face, but not something comparable to a mirror (even to the metal one). In case of the natural water surfaces – rivers, lakes etc – the gazing would more resemble the exercises with the Rorschach inkblots.

Interestingly, that Ovid’s Narcissus is not only trying hard to recognize own reflection (remember, he didn’t see himself before, he’s doesn’t know his own face), he’s also trying to interact with his reflection in water: he attempts to touch it, to grab it, only destroying it in the process, of course. There’s one very moving moment when the reflection is destroyed by his own tears (hello, Alice!)

Apparently, neither Greeks nor Romans realized that Narcissus (or someone else for that matter) could see something really well in the water; they gathered, of course, that some reflection would be seen (and tried to depict in their frescos) but had to understand that this reflection is far from perfect.  It also worth to remember that their reference point, so to speak, was still quite poor reflections in their metal mirrors; compared to those, the reflections in water were not so bad.

That’s not the case with the people of Middle Ages, and especially people of the Renaissance times. These folks (at least, their elites) were already familiar with good (glass) mirrors, even the most primitive of which provided more or less decent reflections. So the story of Narcissus by Ovid when told in the medieval epoch was laid onto a completely different “technological canvas”.

Already in the books from 14-15 centuries already we see the following illustrations:

Here Narcissus is dealing with water surfaces as literally with the mirrors (although the last one is funny, since he tries to look into the torrent; no way to see any reflection there, as we understand).

This last illustration is not really a “medieval” one, it’s an engraving from the 19th century, stylized as if it’s painted in the 15th century (or may be it’s a remake of an authentic old miniature).

But in any case, whether in 15th or 19th century, they hadn’t been bothered at all when depicting a stable image on the pouring stream of water.

Having these examples as a context, the painting by Caravaggio is  piece of genuine realism: Narcissus indeed does not see much of himself in water, his figure is very vague, and also decolorized. There is strong feeling that Caravaggio did spend a moment or two observing how water reflections are actually rendered:

But did he observe how people interact with reflections in water, or already in a mirror? A number of researchers [here there should be some references added] believe that to create his portrait of Narcissus Caravaggio in fact used a mirror:

In some strange (=twisted) it could be supported by the alleged “borrowing” of the Narcissus’ pose by Artemisia Gentileschi for her famous self-portrait:

I’ve written already… oops, I didn’t yet…  about the (quite suspicious) lack of mirrors in the works by Leonardo da Vinci. He was excited by mirrors all his life, yet he didn’t painted any in his paintings. We have only one work, attributed to one of his followers, that depicts  Narcissus; there is a small chance that it’s a copy, or a version of one of the works by Leonardo himself:(follower of) Leonardo da Vinci – Narcissus (1595)

Did Caravaggio know about this work? Or did he know about the earlier version of this composition, created by some Altobello Melone, a mannerist from Cremona?

Both portrait are incredibly psychological: they are not about ‘water as mirror’, but of human tragedy. Psychology will soon be gone, for a few centuries Narcissus will be just a figure of certain genre scenes (where his complex interaction with own reflections will play only a marginal role.) I have compiled a small selection of such paintings, fo various artists:

Nicolas Poussin – Echo and Narcissus (1629)

Nicolas Poussin – Echo and Narcissus (1635)

Francois Lemoyne – Narcissus (1725)

Nicolas Bernard Lepicie – Narcissus (1771)

To the right is Narcissus and Echo (1740) by Placido Costanzi, to the left is a work by anonymous master.

Johann Wilhelm Baur – Narcissus (1728)

Benjamin West – Narcissus and Echo (1805)

Karl Bryullov – Narcissus (1819)

John William Waterhouse – Echo and Narcissus (1903)

This set is far from being complete; it doesn’t even include all the works that I managed to gather, but it does present a good overview, and also allows for spotting a pattern or two.

In a very simplistic way I can say that the degree of ‘interactivity’ of Narcissus and his ‘water mirrors’ does increase with time. We see more interesting poses and gestures, and even some sort of playfulness, that appears, for example, in the etching by Daumier:

Honore Daumier – The Beautiful Narcissus (1842)

Narcissus by Nikolai Kalmakov (1922) is splendid, it’s a complex, metaphorical full-body game with a mirror/water, but also simply a beautiful painting (although the interpretation has little relationship to the original stort, and instead presents some sort of Dionysian character).

If I’d get back to the Dali’s Narcissus, this painting wouldn’t add much to the mirror/water story per se… but great enough anyway to keep it here. This is one of the most wonderful masterpieces of Dali the Surrealist, it’s a very rich ‘visual text’, full of allusions and associations (and prone to endless (re)interpretations.

The painting is also a piece of own biography, in a way; when I grew up, we didn’t see much of Dali, it was a semi-prohibited (= bourgeois and decadent) painter. I once found, in Bulgarian magazine, if I remember, a reproduction of this work; it wasn’t even full-colored (or may be it was just a very bad print). Anyway, I took it out and for a few years kept in my ‘visual treasure box’.

I’d love at some point to write a separate piece, on the mirrors of Dali, but I would need to research it better – not so much because of the amount of works (Dali didn’t produce too many mirrors, surprisingly), but because I’d need to learn more about multiple interpretations that emerged since then. This whole ‘art in mirror, mirrors in art’ a theme in 20th century, especially in its second part, can not be seriously discussed without involving these two guys:

Thanks to them (and I mean ‘thanks’ here) we now have a nice and complex cake, made of  numerous interpretive inter-layers. Even if you totally disagree with all that they produce, it’s still impossible to discard their works, and the works of their disciples  in any analysis of art/mirrors; it’s simply a part of culture by now.

Speaking of Freud, it is tempting to show this work, of course:

Lucian Freud – Narcissus (1948)

We see here a complete loop, and return to the deep psychologism demonstrated already by Leonardo and – to some extent – by Caravaggio.

There is large, and growing volume of contemporary works on this story; some of them are original, while many others are remakes and re-enactment, in all possible ways, the famous work by Caravaggio. I am planning to made a separate slideshow later, showing these remakes (done), but now want to present just a couple of different contemporary works:

Robert Siudmak – Narcissus (1998)

Richard Baxter – Narcissus and Echo (2000)

I wouldn’t say that I particularly like these works, but I find interesting that they both show the games they Narcissuses play with water; it was in the original story, but few artist really dealt with it. And of course, it would be a nice bridge to more techy versions, with the touchscreens.

These days more and more artist directly use mirrors instead of water – whether literally:

Brigitte Carnochan – Narcissus (2003)

or figuratively:

Jamie Vasta – Narcissus, after Caravaggio (2010)

The use of real mirrors when depicting the Narcissus story is not a completely modern invention; already in mid-17 century they employed this trick, representing water by a large mirror:

Parodi Filippo – Narcissus’ Mirror (c. 1670)

Perhaps, this is the best ‘water surface’ Narcissus ever had:

The sculpture is a perfect ending for the posting, illustrating the idea that any new technology, when embedded on large scale, does changes us, and not only towards the futures, but also backwards to the pasts.

Because we are so familiar with mirrors today, and take for granted their capacity to produce good reflection, we start attributing this back to everything able to produce ‘some reflection’ (water surfaces, for instance).

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