The young man staring into the pool in the foreground is Narcissus. According to the Roman poet Ovid, he was a man of extraordinary beauty but was also so proud that he spurned each of his suitors in turn. As a punishment, the goddess Nemesis led him to a pool where he fell so in love with his own reflection that he wasted away to nothing more than a flower growing in the grass.
Subtly, Pynas has also included another character from the story. The nymph Echo was the most famous of Narcissus’s spurned admirers. Rejected, she also pined away until her bones became stone and only the distant sound of her voice survived. She is there, Pynas seems to imply, in the resonant cliffs above the pool. The subject was frequently painted because it gave artists an excuse to showcase landscape, a genre which was becoming increasingly popular both in Rome and in Holland.
There are two characters depicted in this painting, one you can see and one you can’t – unless, that is, you know where to look. The first is Narcissus, the young man staring into the pool in the foreground, whose story is the origin of our word narcissistic. The best known version of this story, and the one which the artist seems to have had in mind, was told by the Roman author Ovid in his poem Metamorphoses.
According to Ovid, Narcissus was the son of a water nymph, conceived after she was raped by a river god. He was a hunter and, more importantly, a man of extraordinary beauty who attracted a succession of potential lovers. But he also had a weakness, a ‘pride so cold that no youth, no maiden touched his heart’, and he either spurned or mocked each of his suitors in turn. The goddess Nemesis was so appalled that she vowed to punish him. She led him to a sunless pool where, catching sight of his reflection, he fell in love with his own image. Unable to tear himself away, he pined until ‘death sealed the eyes that marvelled at their master’s beauty’. His body faded away leaving nothing more than a flower growing on the spot where he lay. Pynas has depicted him here during the first stages of his self infatuation, gazing languidly into the water, his bow and arrows neglected, his hound looking anxiously up at him.
There is also a second character present but neither we, nor Narcissus, can see her. She is the nymph Echo, the most famous of his spurned admirers. Before she met him, she had already been condemned by the goddess Juno to repeat only the last words spoken to her. Following rejection by Narcissus, she pined away until her bones turned to stone and only the distant sound of her voice survived. She is there, Pynas seems to imply, in the resonant rocks and high cliffs above the pool.
And there are other details from Ovid’s story in the landscape. The watery theme of Narcissus’s parenthood is reflected in the cascade which gushes from under the brick arch and five other rushing streams which lace their way between the rocks, some feeding down into the pool of the foreground. Ovid’s description of a sunless pool ‘to which no shepherds ever came’ and shaded by a coppice is also rendered faithfully: not only is the water in shadow, but we can see the shepherds far away on the hillside to the right of the picture. Pynas has also chosen to embellish the stone sides of the pool with a reference to another of Ovid’s myths. The carving on the side represents the abduction of Europa, a story which appears just a few pages before that of Narcissus.
Although Pynas weaves myths so subtly into the painting, the picture would probably have been valued originally as much for its landscape as its storytelling. Indeed, the story of Narcissus and Echo was frequently painted in the early seventeenth century precisely because it gave artists an excuse to paint landscape, a genre which was becoming increasingly popular both in Rome and in Holland.
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