In the ancient myth, as recounted by the Latin poet Ovid, Narcissus is a youth of great beauty; 'Many lads and many girls fell in love with him but his soft young body housed a pride so unyielding that none of those boys and girls dared to touch him.' Eventually a nymph named Echo fell in love with him. When he rejected her she pined away until only her voice was left. Hearing the complaints of his rejected lovers, the goddess of vengeance, Nemesis, punished Narcissus by arranging for him to experience for himself the pain of unrequited love.
Since he could only love himself she caused him to see his reflection in a pool of water. Narcissus fell in love, but was unable to embrace the beautiful stranger in the pool. Frustrated, Narcissus in turn pined away and finally died. At his death the goddess relented slightly and tranformed him into the flower we know as the Narcissus.
Dal¡ shows us first of all Narcissus as he was in life, posing 'narcissistically' on a pedestal in the background, gazing down admiringly at himself. Then we see him kneeling in the fatal pool in the process of transformation into the strange hand holding an egg from which springs the new Narcissus flower. The transformation is brilliantly rendered by Dal¡ - the knee becomes a thumbnail, the upper arm a finger, the head the egg, the reflection in the water the base of the hand.
Shortly after the picture was completed in 1937, Dal¡ published a short book about it containing a long poem related to the painting, together with instructions for looking at it. Dal¡ suggests that the best effect is obtained by staring hard at the figure of Narcissus on the pedestal until your attention involuntarily switches away. 'The metamorphosis of the myth takes place at that precise moment for the image of Narcissus is suddenly transformed into the image of a hand which rises out of its own reflection.'
One of the reasons for the fascinating effect of Dal¡'s paintings is the brilliant technique with which he makes real for the spectator his fantastic imagery. Dal¡ memorably described this technique as 'Instantaneous and hand-done colour photography of the superfine, extravagant, extra-plastic, extra-pictorial, unexplored, super-pictorial, super-plastic, deceptive, hyper-normal and sickly images of concrete irrationality.'
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.163