Metamorphoses Project:
Tracing Mythology through Time and Place

Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali

Narcissus and Echo

Group Members:  Kristin Fleming and Michelle Mariorenzi

Analasis of Metamorphosis of Narcissus

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus by Salvador Dali is an abstract painting on Ovid’s tale of Narcissus and Echo. This oil on canvas painting portrays many feelings that come from the story. By using two main tones Dali is able to separate the two main themes of passion and grief. Painted in Spain between 1936 and 1937, The Metamorphosis of Narcissus retells the story of the tragic fate of Narcissus and Echo. This painting still intact and in good condition hangs in the Tate Museum in London, England, allowing viewers to be overwhelmed by the surreal images that Dali presents. The painting is sectioned so that is tells the story of Narcissus life using symbols and tones to show the good and bad throughout the painting.

The title Metamorphosis of Narcissus states exactly what Dali is trying to create, changes that Narcissus faces during the story. The metamorphosis Narcissus goes through is broken down into four scenes. Salvador Dali uses symbols and color to portray two themes that come from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Reflected on two different tones Dali shows the passion and coldness that is portrayed in the Narcissus story. He tries to show the viewer grief, life and death, self-love, and sorrow, with many symbols and colors. Because Dali is a surrealist everything that is placed in his painting has a meaning or else it wouldn't be there. The painting is deep with many layers and planes.

There are four main places where the painting has been split. The first is a vertical split but it is also split along the horizontal plane. The first scene is in the bottom left corner, it’s an enlarged shape of a man with his head resting on his knee. Behind him there is a fire burning. The man is crouched in the water with his reflection shining back from a pool of water. There is a huge reddish black mountain side behind him. This portion is painted in darker tones of red and yellow. The next scene is to the bottom right of the first. In the middle there is another form with the shape of the man but this one appears to be a stone hand that is holding an egg. The egg is cracked with a white flower growing out of it. Behind the hand there is a fire that has gone out so there is a smoking fire pit. There are also two types of animals in this scene, one is some ants that are crawling up the thumb to the egg and the other is a dog that is at the right of the hand eating some sort of bloody meat. This section Dali painted with blue and gray tones. The last two scenes are behind the two figures and may not be noticed right away by a viewer. On the right behind the figure of the man are a group of women gathered on a dirt road. All the women are naked and some seem to be weeping, while others are dancing. This part has more of the red and yellow tones but they are a little lighter. The last scene is behind the stone hand. There is a statue that is standing on a pedestal in the middle of a chess board. The statue is of a man and he is peering up into the mountains in the top right corner. The Chess board and statue have red and yellow tones but the mountains in the distance seem to have more blues and grays. These four parts make this painting very interesting with different layers and emotions.

The beginning of the story isn’t where the viewer first glances at the painting; instead it is toward the top right corner where the statue and mountains are being shown. This is the how Narcissus sees his life. The one piece on the chess board shows that Narcissus is the only being in his life, a one person game. Dali wants the viewer to sense vanity in Narcissus; the statue is positioned so that the feeling of the image is snobby. It is up on a pedestal because Narcissus thinks of himself as a more worthy being than the rest of humanity. This figure is facing away towards the dark mountains with a black cloud moving over from the left. This shows all the sorrow and negativity to come to Narcissus along the way. Leading the life that he did only will bring despair.

The women behind the giant man can be perceived as the nymphs and women that have been in Narcissus’ life. The ones that are weeping may have been ones that Narcissus has rejected and so he has left them in sorrow. This area is painted with warmer tones of yellows and reds that give a joyous feel to the scene. Dali shows with the group that with sorrow there is still happiness because they women are not alone.

The next two scenes show the life and death of Narcissus. The bottom left shows Narcissus as he was alive. The man staring at his reflection in the water would be Narcissus. There is a sense of grief with this form. The head resting on the figures knee is a sign of grief and sadness. Narcissus has realized that he will never have the person that he truly loves and he is grieved by this. Dali shows that he is stuck by placing a fire behind him. This fire is the passion that he has for the reflection he sees of himself. It is keeping him there because being directly behind him, he can’t move. The fire is keeping him from getting up and leaving just as his passion for himself has kept him from leaving the side of the water. The dark wall behind him shows the isolation and loneliness in Narcissus’ life. Narcissus has shunned the surroundings in his life so that he is left in isolation. There is no one around him because he has set himself away from all other people. Narcissus is painted in a warm yellow but is surrounded by dark reds and back. The yellow shows that Narcissus himself is alive with passion but the world around him is lonely and sad. His surrounding world is the one that he has made for himself, but again Dali is showing this dark shadow of sorrow and despair that is all around Narcissus.

The final bit is with the hand and the egg. This scene is very cold with blues and grays to show a loss of passion within Narcissus. The hand holding the egg is that of Echo, a lonely nymph who died in isolation because of rejection from Narcissus. In the story after she dies her voice stays in the mountains and her bones turn to stone. This stone hand is holding up an egg which represents the last bit that is left of Narcissus. Even thou Echo is dead there is still some passion alive in her. Dali shows the only passion that is left is in Echo’s finger tips by being the only yellow and warm toned part in this corner. The egg has a flower blooming from it; the flower though is still placed in the shadows and with blue tones. Dali shows that the flower though alive but cold having no passion or emotions. The ants crawling up the thumb and the dog represent different forms of destruction. The dog is eating a bloody piece of meat which can be assumed to be a piece of Narcissus’ flesh. Dali tries to show the viewer that beauty is destroyed in the end, that life never ends up as beautiful as it began. The ants crawling up Echo’s thumb show another form of discomposure, portraying that even beauty gets broken down and separated in the end. That with death there comes destruction and loss. The fire behind the hand had gone out, just as the passion has died in Narcissus. The smoking ashes are Dali’s way of showing that there is no more passion in Narcissus’ body.

Dali uses colors and symbols to show the passion and grief throughout the whole story of Narcissus and Echo. He uses reds to show the enflamed passion that is shown in all throughout the story and then he has colder blues to portray death and sadness. He tries to draw the viewer in with images like the dog adds to the coldness and the group of people that have a feeling of community which adds to joy and passion. He uses all these tones to show the emotions and transformations that Narcissus goes through his life.

This was Writen by Michelle Mariorenzi

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The background is a photo of the Narcissus flower. It has white petals and an orange cup in the center. Photo by Danny Burk, 2001.

Last updated 20 October 05