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Exploring Art Works That Look At Narcissism

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Narcissism forms a big part of our everyday life and this desire to admire oneself and one’s physical appearance has been a theme in art for centuries. Art work has been inspired or influenced by the theme of narcissism in a range of different ways. The dictionary definition of narcissism is as, “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance” (Oxford Dictionary 2010). We live in a very self-centered world, where narcissism has become more prevalent, especially within the ‘selfie’ culture of our society. With the rise of popularity of many social media platforms, physical appearance has become a priority for many as they strive towards perfection. When did we become so self-obsessed? Perhaps it is due to the rise in popularity of selfies: “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media” (Oxford Dictionary 2010). The portrayal of narcissism within the art community has changed as artists now have a wider variety of mediums and resources to use. This essay is comprised of two parts and focuses on my fascination with the mythological story of Narcissus and the psychology behind the use of selfies in modern art. Is using yourself as the subject for art a narcissistic trait? Or is using yourself as the subject more familiarity and accessibility?

Several artists have interpreted Ovid’s myth of Narcissus into painting. The myth of Narcissus is about a young man, son of the river God Cephisus and nymph Lyripe who was desired by both men and women for his beauty. Narcissus continuously rejected them all without any remorse. One day, whilst on a hunt, he rests by a spring and falls in love with his own reflection. Spending timeless days and nights sat by it before wasting away and becoming a beautiful Daffodil, the genus of which is “Narcissus” (Oxford Dictionary 2010). The pale flower is still reflected in the water. This obsession with his own reflection is where the term narcissism derives. Mythology has always formed part of human life and been a subject of study for millenniums, thus implying the importance of such stories and the morality conveyed through them. The first part of this essay will scrutinise three paintings by three different artists who took inspiration from the myth of Narcissus. The paintings were created in different time periods, within different movements, ranging over a span of several centuries. Comparisons will be made between the interpretations of the depiction of the story of Narcissus in the works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse and Salvador Dali. Through analysing these works, looking for similarities and differences, an understanding of the artists’ perspectives of the myth will be gained. Considering the artists’ choice of techniques and their decisions about the composition will be analysed in order to understand the perspective of the artists. The second part of the essay will comprise of an exploration into the work of the contemporary artist Tracey Emin and discuss whether she takes a narcissistic approach to her practice through being the subject of many of her artworks.

Comparing Works Depicting the Mythological Figure: Narcissus

Caravaggio, Waterhouse and Dali’s interpretations were inspired by Ovid’s, Metamorphoses 3.5, which is a narrative Latin poem written by Ovid 8 AD. The contrast in style within each painting, Narcissus (1597-1599), Echo and Narcissus (1903), and the Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937), demonstrate completely different interpretations of the popular myth. However, if we focus on the main elements such as the depiction of the youth, his surroundings and his reflection within the body of water within the three paintings the similarities come into view.

It could be suggested that, Caravaggio’s interpretation of the myth is more simplistic than other paintings of the myth. The Italian painter stays true to his Baroque style in a variety of ways. In this medium sized oil painting, the painter uses cool tones of blues and greens to emphasise a sense of drama and melancholy, which he is trying to convey. He uses a technique called tenebrism from the Italian word ‘tenebroso’, which is a style of painting that employs dramatic illumination with strong contrasts between light and dark. In this case, this technique is also employed to add drama and bring into focus all the viewer’s attention on the figure of Narcissus. The composition is divided into two halves, with the lower section being the reflection in the water. Caravaggio adds a higher saturation to the upper half of the painting in order to attract the viewer’s attention to the face of Narcissus. The eye is then guided down the painting, due to the figures arm, to uncover his reflection. This is showcased by an idea presented by Cahill (2018), “Narcissus’s forearms form a circular framework with his reflection, underscoring the vicious cycle of his self-love. He dips his left hand into the water and seems about to embrace his image, his longing palpable.” A sense of melancholy is manifested due the use of such contrast between the background and the figure itself. As the majority of the canvas is black it creates a void-like sense of depth, which conveys the emptiness which Narcissus is feeling on the inside. Caravaggio’s use of these compositional devices highlights the theme of narcissism within his painting. Nothing other than the man leaning over the water is important in this image, the subject matter is only that of Narcissus and his reflection.

The English painter Waterhouse is the only artist in this trio of paintings who adds the nymph Echo. Wistfully, she watches Narcissus fulfil the prophecy of the myth: he falls in love with his own reflection and she is unsuccessful in gaining his attention away from himself. In comparison to the other two artists, Waterhouse did not seek alternate means of expression, and instead adhered to strict classical themes and techniques. Mentioned in an article by the ‘galleryintell’ (2014): “Waterhouse used the medium simply to retell the well-loved stories” thus staying true to his Victorian style. Similar to Caravaggio’s work, there is a clear sense of melancholy created in this painting. This mood also expresses the devastating moment where Narcissus can’t see anything other than his own reflection. Every component of this painting revolves around Narcissus. The nymph Echo, who is madly in love with Narcissus, is deeply gazing at him which brings the viewer’s attention to the male figure. The painter added a variety of rich and textured colours, such as a soft rose, lush greens, golds and blues. These pastel tones convey a fairy-tale like mood which adds to the mythological subject matter. The vibrancy adds a layer of fantasy to the oeuvre. The use of green in this painting conveys a sense of harmony, security and balance, even though the situation in which Narcissus is in is completely the opposite. The pale pink and red coloured drapes, that both Narcissus and Echo are wearing, complement and contrast with the green very well. In this case, the red cloth that Narcissus is wearing implies a sense of danger, or threat and also brings emphasis to his figure, successfully attracting all the viewer’s attention on Narcissus. Contrary to other artists who experimented to create new interesting pieces, Waterhouse employs a palette of soft colours along with a high level of realism in order to faithfully portray the myth.“Echo and Narcissus”, 1903, John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917)

In contrast, Dali has a more chaotic response to the myth. Known as the Surrealist master, the Spanish painter exhibits an artwork which owes little to the story as narrated by Ovid. This medium sized oil painting presenting a fantastic barren landscape lit with strong light has nothing in common with the, “hidden spot in the dark woods” described by Ovid (8 AD). The pool in Dalí’s painting is far from the crystal silvery spring of fresh water but seems more like a part of a lake; its water is strangely still and sinister. The nymph Echo does not appear in the scene nor do other nymphs mentioned by Ovid. Narcissus is not depicted as a youth whose charm attracted both girls and boys as portrayed in Ovid’s verses. Moreover, Dali introduces several elements that aren’t present in the traditional iconography of Narcissus: the fossil with an egg in the foreground, the chessboard and a group of agitated women and men. Dali accomplishes a link between the traditional Greek myth and his own interest in psychoanalysis, making him stay very true to his own style.“Metamorphosis of Narcissus”, 1937, Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989)

Although Dali doesn’t include Echo within his painting, as Waterhouse has, he does paint three figures of Narcissus within the upper half of the painting. It is almost as if the painting could be split into two. Each half represents the ‘before and after’ of Narcissus’ transformation into the flower, which can be seen on the right side of the painting. Dali also uses a variety of contrasting tones to highlight the two main figures, but the background is more vivid and busy than in any of the paintings we have previously analysed. This emphasises the fact that Narcissus is at a loss; for when sitting over his reflection he sees nothing around, he is unaware of the many hearts that he has broken. These can be seen standing in a close group in the background. These naked female figures are an important part of the composition as the artist has placed them in the centre of the painting. Their vertical pose compliments the two main verticals of Narcissus in the foreground. Dali uses a variety of tones ranging from earthy browns to light blues, greens and vivid reds. On the left half of the painting, Narcissus is leaning over the water and is surrounded by a humongous red cloud which guides the viewer’s eye directly to that side of the painting and onto the figure of Narcissus. His light and saturated body contrasts with the darker background and further emphasises his presence.

In almost all three paintings, the emphasis is not Narcissus’s reflection, but on the figure himself. It could be suggested that this highlights the insignificance of such vanity. In Caravaggio and Waterhouse’s paintings the viewer is shown an unhappy face of Narcissus. This supports the idea of how narcissism can overpower a person and how one can lose their main focus and goal. Narcissus may have thought that staring at the reflection of himself was the happiest he would be, but that wasn’t true, and the paintings bring this to light. Although all three artists have a different interpretation of the general myth, their representation of it and its effects are similar. In all three paintings, Narcissus is the main subject matter, again highlighting the idea of narcissism and the obsession with oneself. The depth created by the artists in all three works, especially in the water, makes us feel as if we could fall in just like Narcissus fell in love with his reflection.

Evidently, the artists have each adapted the myth into their own style, which is also dependent on their time period. Over time, we are able to see that Dali, for instance has swayed the most from the original story and that Caravaggio, stayed true to his Baroque style which is known for dramatizing scenes using chiaroscuro light effects whilst keeping a realistic approach to the human figure. However, all three artists decided to interpret the myth of Narcissus, which highlights its relevance over several centuries. As our view of the world keeps changing, the interpretations of myths might become more abstract and due to the increasing options of technology and materials that one is able to use, the myth of Narcissus might become barely recognisable, yet it will still for a part of certain art-works.

Selfie Culture and Modern-Day Narcissism

I am interested to consider how narcissism has a place in contemporary art. Even though selfies have become popular since the 2000s with the rise of the camera phone, the first documented selfie was taken in 1839 by an American photographer, Robert Cornelius and since then it has been used as a medium of self-expression, capturing uncharacteristically personal insights into otherwise conservative individuals. I want to consider how artists have employed the phone camera in order to express their feelings and emotions. As well as this I want to consider if selfies are the modern way of illustrating narcissism or whether they are simply evidence of self-exploration? In order to investigate the second part of my essay I analyse some of the self-portraiture of the contemporary artist Tracey Emin. 1839, Robert Cornelius (1809 – 1893)

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Tracey Emin explores portraiture, using herself as her subject in many aspects of her work. One aspect is a body of work created in 2005 which consists of an enlarged polaroid snapshots conveying intimacy, exposure and rawness. In her interview with the Belfast Telegraph (2008), she goes on to admit, ‘all the works are? About me and my experiences”. It is interesting to consider whether it is brave of Emin to reveal so much of herself to the public or whether he work can be classed as being narcissistic.

Emin has produced a variety of artworks across a range of materials and techniques but it her selfies which are the most applicable. Generally, selfies show the person’s face, although in the case of “Self-Portrait 12-11-01(2005)” the face has been cropped out of the photo, leaving us to see Emin’s chin, mouth and chest. The main element of the image is her exposed chest and an array of gold necklaces and beads. These elements are both associated with sexuality, money and fame. Influenced by today’s media, people have become more and more self-conscious of their physical appearance. On one side, this photo completely supports the idea of insecurity and vulnerability as Emin is not showing her face, which enables the viewer to perceive the artist in a more realistic way. On the other hand, this photo in itself is an oxymoron as although her face isn’t exposed, her body is, supporting the idea that when presenting a photograph of oneself, one is able to manipulate it to only show the parts of themselves that they are comfortable with, suggesting that it could all be part of a narcissistic act. However, in an article by Alididh Maclean (2016), Emin goes on to admit: “I’ve always had a thing about my body, always not felt good about it. The happiest I am is the thinnest I can be,” which highlights the idea that the “naked body” that “is the subject of much of her own work, acts as a vehicle in which to consider the effects of time and the human ageing process.” Maclean (2016).“Self-Portrait 12-11-01”, 2005, Tracey Emin (1963-Present)

The lighting in this photo makes the body the main element, creating very dark shadows around it, which creates a similar effect to Caravaggio’s technique: ‘tenebroso’. This contrasts with the oversaturated focal point of this photo which in this case is Tracey Emin, which also takes up most of the square polaroid with little to no background. Furthermore, supporting the idea of credibility of importance and being the main element under the spotlight.

Sitting on a rust red floor in a low-cut Vivienne Westwood dress, legs splayed, Emin attempts to gather a pile of British currency that seems to spew uncontrollably from her loins. The title of this photo, “I’ve Got it All (2005)” contributes to the idea of power, superiority and therefore narcissism.

There are a lot of aspects within this photo which are crucial to analyse. Firstly, the position of the artist right in the middle of the photograph creates an idea of self-absorption, as previously explored, the idea of being the centre of the painting is what artists used to represent Narcissus. Emin forms a triangle shape which rests on a solid base which, according to Hugh Rees (2014) is often associated with, “stability, power, direction and energy”. In, “The Triangle in Visual Art” by Hugh Rees (2014) he presents the idea that: “Symbolically the triangle can represent a spiritual hierarchy, particularly in Christianity where the Trinity is depicted in three points of significance.” This could suggest that the artist thought of herself as someone of significance, a celebrity which is an indication of certain narcissistic personality traits.“I’ve got it All”, Tracey Emin (1963-Present)

Looking at a more obscure aspect of the photo, as described in, The Art Story (Tracey Emin Artworks), “Emin sits in front of the camera with her head down and her legs apart. A pile of money (notes and coins) sits between her legs and she seems to be clutching the money to her groin.” There are several interpretations to this photograph including, “This photograph suggests both that she is celebrating her success, and also that she is somehow overwhelmed by it”. Exposing the reality of the artist which even though is in a position of power, she feels adored and confident. She is also overwhelmed and vulnerable, suggesting that fame and money don’t truly bring you happiness. Supporting the idea that it is only truly filling a void which in this case is money and in Narcissus’ case was him looking at his reflection.

Emin has been described as one of the most controversial artists of our time. The artist is willing to expose themselves and get more involved within their art, which adds more personality to it and makes the public have a more personal connection to the artist. She touches on topics such as self-absorption, fame and everything that comes with it. Her work in the words of McGrath (2002), “is comfortingly dangerous. It is at one and the same time subversive and conservative”. This aspect could highlight a certain degree of narcissism within her work, as by being a celebrity and being such an influence on a lot of people, making the most out of the ordinary art might be your best resource to get into someone’s head and stay there, leaving them to wonder what it all means. Through analysing this work, it could be suggested that narcissism can not only affect ones-self, but it could also have an impact on your audience as you leave them wondering about your latest creations.

According to an article by Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D. (2013), there are two ways in which people interpret selfies one of which considers them, “proof of cultural or at least generational narcissism and moral decline”, whilst the other refers to them as a, “by-product of technology-enabled self-exploration”. On one hand, selfies are associated with narcissism because they enable the person taking the selfie to be in complete control of the image one projects. They will later on upload on social media in order to get approval or “likes” from others, which may boost their ego. As stated by Megan Rogers (2013) the problem with selfies is that, “users cultivate so much of their time, effort and even money to maintain their pleasing and attractive online image”, which in itself is associated with narcissism as willing to spend a prolonged amount of time and money on one’s physical appearance is considered narcissistic. People are always going to upload photos of them looking their best, which sets unrealistic standards in society. Although the bigger problem is, “what you think of yourself does not matter and you start doing things that other people will like. It might lead to selfie addiction and narcissism” Rogers (2013). People may start losing their sense of self, measuring their self-worth in likes and becoming too fixed on the details that aren’t that significant. In a way this can be used as a modern example of the myth of Narcissus, as he spent day and night sat by the pool of water staring at his reflection with no awareness of anything around him.

On the other hand, Rutledge (2016) claims that being preoccupied with oneself is as old as mankind, whilst stating several reasons why selfies and narcissism have no correlation. The first one being”, selfies can be more about the context than the self”, which is something often explored by artists whom wish to employ technological resources. Selfies show facets of other people and enable us to learn about them and they don’t always seek validation. Most importantly, Rutledge (2016) points out that “selfies can be normalizing” as for many years people have been concerned about the quantity of images setting unrealistic standards, but nowadays there are more photos of ‘real’ people across all social media platforms. This allows people to challenge their vanity and put their personality back into documentation. From this perspective selfies are seen as a way to celebrate oneself, which can still be considered narcissistic, if done frequently.

Throughout this essay, we have been able to investigate different depictions of narcissism and how it reveals itself in Western art through the representation of the myth and reflecting on how artist can be narcissistic in their depiction of themselves. It is fair to point out that our idea of narcissism and the way it is manifested in art has been developed over time and is different to what they thought decades ago and the representations were different, although there are still a few similarities which support the definition of narcissism we have nowadays. Self-obsession, being the centre of attention, not reacting to anything but yourself are all part of the criteria which are presented in art through different techniques such as ‘tenebroso’, colour theory, use of geometrical shapes and the overall composition of the artworks. Doesn’t everyone present these qualities at some point in their life? So really everyone is a narcissist in a way.


  1. Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 AD), written 1 A.C.E. Translated by Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden Oxford Dictionary of English (3 ed.), Oxford University Press, 2010
  2. Havelock Ellis, Eonism and Other Supplementary Studies, 1928
  3. James Cahill, Flying too Close to the Sun, PHAIDON, 2015
  4. Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937
  5. ‘’, “Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse” (2015)
  6. “The first ever selfie, taken in 1839 – a picture from the past”, Karin Andreasson (March 2014)
  7. Belfast Telegraph, “Tracy Emin’s work crude and self-centred? That’s missing the point” (2008)
  8. Ailidh Maclean “A guide to Tracey Emin, Britain’s art enfant terrible” (September 2016)
  9. Hugh Rees, “The Triangle in Visual Art” (2014)
  10. “The Art Story” (Tracey Emin Artworks) (
  11. Melanie McGrath, Something’s wrong (2002).
  12. Pamela B. Rutledge, PhD, “Exploring Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Well-Being”, October 2016
  13. Megan Rogers, “It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Science Behind the Selfie”, December 2013

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