In Florence to avoid revolutionary Paris, François-Xavier Fabre circulated in largely English aristocratic circles and generated a prominent reputation as a painter of portraits and landscape souvenirs for tourists. In the face of this commercial activity, he struggled to produce work that accorded with his academic training.
The Death of Narcissus provides a compelling response to this conundrum. It recounts the mythological narrative of Narcissus, a handsome youth who, indifferent to the affection of others, is condemned to fall in love with his own image in a forest pool. Narcissus fades away, losing both his senses and his beauty, as he desperately attempts to possess his own image.
While the work is suggestive of the Academic genre of history painting, it represents an early historical landscape. Fabre had just read Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’s famous Elements of Perspective (1799–1800), which sought to elevate the landscape genre to an Academic status similar to that of history painting. Valenciennes argued for landscape painting that was both highly learned and paid close attention to the study of nature. Fabre’s canvas represents an important example of an historical landscape, painted two years before the Académie in Paris created a special Grand Prix for the genre.