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The class, with Shimer faculty member Stuart Patterson, will take its cues for discussion from a few different sources, but will concentrate on two paintings illustrating the story of Narcissus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book III, 339-510) Narcissus was the beautiful youth who, himself led astray by the nymph Echo’s cries of unrequited love, fell in love with his own image, and was transformed into the flower that now bears his name. In his groundbreaking treatise On Painting (published in Latin in 1435, in Italian a year later), Leon Battista Alberti playfully suggests that we look to Narcissus as the inventor of painting:
“. . . I used to tell my friends that the inventor of painting, according to the poets, was Narcissus, who was turned to a flower; for, as painting is the flower of all the arts, so the tale of Narcissus fits our purpose perfectly. What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?” (Alberti, On Painting, Book II)
It is hard to say whether Alberti is being ironic, here. But he at least raises questions, in the context of the myth, as to how painting is implicated in the seductions of vision.
To see how painters themselves respond to the story of Narcissus, we look first at a work by Caravaggio, an Italian who died at the age of 40 in 1610. We will then turn briefly to consider another treatment of the Narcissus story, this one by Salvador Dali, the Catalonian surrealist painter who died at 84 in 1989.