Artibus et Historiae no. 65 (XXXIII)

2012, ISSN 0391-9064

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BERNICE IAROCCI - Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus: Painting as Lamentation

This paper argues that two aspects of Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus (c. 1625–1630) are particularly crucial to the significance the painting held for its seicento audience: Poussin’s staging of the Narcissus myth as a lamentation tableau, and his inclusion of Echo. The painting comprises two themes that are intertwined and elaborated upon at length in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century interpretations of the myth: the allegorization of both Narcissus and Echo as the desiring soul who, in Neoplatonic terms, seeks to rejoin the divine or, conversely, remains mired in grief and succumbs to illness; and the identification of Narcissus and Echo as lamenting lovers with those who are compelled to make or enjoy works of art. Engaging its viewers by means of its composition and iconography, the Echo and Narcissus would have proposed a dilemma about the truth value of painting, asking if the love for material beauty is merely an end in itself, or if art can provide the impetus for its own transcendence to a spiritually inspired wisdom that releases the soul from a state of yearning, sickness, and despair.

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