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Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Echo – “You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first”

"Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse

“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse

“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse depicts Narcissus, a beautiful youth who rejected all the nymphs and women who fell in love with him. Instead fell in love with his reflection. The story is based on a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin mythological epic. In the tale, the mountain nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus. Narcissus, however, rejects her love. The nymph Echo, who was so upset by his rejection that she withdrew from life and wasted away until all that was left was a whisper. Her prayers were heard by the goddess Nemesis, who caused Narcissus to fall in love with his reflection.

Waterhouse shows the scene where Narcissus tired from the hunting, and the heat rests by a spring, and while drinking, “a new thirst grows inside him,” and he is “captivated by the image of the beauty he sees.” He falls deeply in love with “all the things for which he is admired.” He then wastes away with love for himself, echoing the response that Echo had earlier. He continued to look at his reflection until he died. A narcissus flower grew on the spot where he died. The pale flower is still found near river banks so that it can be reflected in the water.

The poem “Echo and Narcissus” by Ovid was written during the Augustan Age. However, both Echo and Narcissus originated from much earlier Greek mythology. The myth of Narcissus had inspired artists for at least two thousand years, even before the Roman poet Ovid featured a version in his Metamorphoses. In more recent centuries poets such as Keats and painters such as Caravaggio, Poussin, Turner, Dalí and Waterhouse have all created artworks inspired by the myth of Narcissus.

Echo

In Greek mythology, Echo was a mountain nymph who resided on Mount Cithaeron in central Greece. Zeus loved consorting with beautiful nymphs and often visited them on Earth. Eventually, Zeus’s wife, Hera, became suspicious and came down from Mt. Olympus in an attempt to catch Zeus with the nymphs. Echo, by trying to protect Zeus, endured Hera’s wrath, and Hera cursed her only to be able to speak the last words spoken to her. So when Echo met Narcissus and fell in love with him, she was unable to tell him how she felt and was forced to watch him as he fell in love with himself.

Narcissus

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was known for his beauty and who loved everything beautiful. Narcissus was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him, causing some to commit suicide to prove their unrelenting devotion to his striking beauty. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance or public perception.

Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses which in Latin means “Books of Transformations” is a Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid. Comprising of over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a mythical framework.

One of the most influential works in Western culture, the Metamorphoses has inspired such authors as Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in acclaimed works of sculpture, painting, and music.

Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso ( 43 BC – 18 AD), known as Ovid was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace and enjoyed enormous popularity. However, after displeasing Augustus, he was sent into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death. Ovid himself attributes his exile to “a poem and a mistake,” but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation.

His poetry was imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and greatly influenced Western art and literature. His Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse worked in the Pre-Raphaelite style, several decades after the breakup of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which included artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. Waterhouse embraced the Pre-Raphaelite style even though it had gone out of fashion in the British art scene, by the time he painted this painting. He painted over 200 works, mainly in the genres of classical mythology, and historical or literary subjects.

Echo and Narcissus

  • Title:              Echo and Narcissus
  • Artist:            John William Waterhouse
  • Medium:       Oil on canvas
  • Date:             1882
  • Dimensions:  Height: 1,092 mm (42.99 ″); Width: 1,892 mm (74.48 ″)
  • Museum:       Walker Art Gallery

John William Waterhouse

Reflections

  • Echo was cursed only to speak the last words spoken to her and thus could not express her love. Does this still happen today?
  • “You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except that one purpose you are so fond of – reply. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first.” – Hera to Echo

Exploring Pre-Raphaelite Artists

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“You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first.”
– Hera to Echo

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Photo Credit: John William Waterhouse [Public domain]

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