The painting portrays a truly fascinating mythological subject taken from the famous Metamorphoses by the great Latin writer, Ovid (43 BC - AD 18). Narcissus, an exceptionally handsome youth, made all the girls and boys he met fall in love with him, but never gave in to any of them. Echo, the nymph, was one of those who fell hopelessly in love with him and she was condemned by the goddess Juno to repeat the last words of those who spoke with her. Spurned by the young Narcissus, Echo ran off in desperation to the woods and rocks, and pined away until she became no more than a voice. Narcissus was punished by the gods for his cruelty. He was condemned by Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, to fall in love with his own reflection in the waters of a spring where he had knelt down to drink. After seeing the reflection of his face, Narcissus could not tear himself away from it and, attempting to embrace it, he fell into the water and drowned. His body was transformed by the gods into the flower which bears his name, now the symbol of youth cut short by death.
As is often the case in Caravaggio’s works, the scene is shown at the height of the action, an instant before the drama: Narcissus has just leant down to drink (his right hand is already in the water, ready to take it up), when he notices his reflection and falls hopelessly in love with it. An instant later, the tragedy will take place.
As in other works by Caravaggio, the composition is extraordinarily original with the invention of the double figure hinged around the brightly lit knee acting as the fulcrum. Another entirely new element is the general concept of the painting, quite different from any previous works, which sets the scene in luxuriant landscapes filled with light, and including various details of the story: Echo the nymph, the flowers by the waterside, the dog, the deer, and the quiver with the arrows, symbols of Narcissus the hunter. The total absence of any references in this painting focuses attention on the drama of Narcissus, revealing the artist’s clear intention to capture the very essence of Ovid’s text.