Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

Visitors to the impressive Victorian Gallery at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool are often struck by this imposing canvas and the tragic tale of unrequited love it so romantically illustrates. Echo and Narcissus is an episode from the epic Roman poem Metamorphoses written by Ovid around 2000 years ago.

Narcissus, as the son of a god and a nymph, was a young man possessed of both grace and beauty. As a child his parents were told that he would have a long life if he did not look at himself. Throughout his youth he rejected all the nymphs and women who fell in love with him. One of these was the nymph Echo. A tragic figure once punished by a goddess for her constant chatter, Echo was confined to repeating the words of others. Hopelessly obsessed with Narcissus she tried to win his love using fragments of his own speech but he spurned her attentions. Echo was so upset by her 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 cursed Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. Obsessed by his own image, he continued to look at his reflection, forgoing all food and water until his death. A narcissus flower grew on the riverside marking the spot where he died.

Waterhouse’s style mirrored that made popular half a century earlier by Rossetti and Millais. Echo’s fair skin, red hair and wistful look is typical of the depiction of beauty popularised by these artists and Waterhouse became known as the modern pre-Raphaelite. Like his predecessors, Waterhouse also enjoyed painting classical subjects inspired by literature. The costumes and poses in his pictures often mirror those of the classical sculptures which were readily viewable in art galleries of the time. In a curious juxtaposition, the backgrounds were often inspired by traditional English woodland settings.


This painting can be seen at the Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool L3 8EL. The gallery is open daily and admission is free.


Why you should see this painting

This beautiful painting depicts a tragic tale of unrequited love between two people who are memorialised to this day by the curses placed upon them.


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