The subject of Narcissus is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself. The drawing depicts a young man cradling his face in his hands as he gazes down at his reflection. His shoulders and chest are covered by a thick woolen garment - a sweater or jacket - the texture of which is minutely detailed. The edge of the mirror is uncomfortably close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection. The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world. The patterning created by the proximity of the doubled hands, mouth nose and chin has a surreal, sculptural quality reminiscent of such works as the painting Still Life with Chelsea Buns 1943 (Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) and the print Girl with Fig Leaf 1948 (P77265). It is drawn using a line and dot technique which Freud developed in the 1940s and which was well suited to reproduction. The style and scale of the drawing are consciously indebted to Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98), whose illustrations Freud admired. The model for the drawing was a young boy who lived on Delamere Terrace, London W2, where Freud also had a home.
In the late 1940s the publishers MacGibbon & Kee commissioned Freud to illustrate Rex Warner’s book Men and Gods on classical mythology. He produced four drawings for the book, of which Narcissus is one. The others are Man of Hyacinths (Colin St John Wilson Collection), Hercules (private collection) and Actaeon (private collection). The figures in all the drawings are in modern dress. The publishing house rejected the drawings because they did not illustrate the stories sufficiently, and instead chose Elizabeth Corsellis’s drawings for the book, which was published in 1950. Freud made illustrations for several other books during the 1940s, though few were ever selected for publication.
The close-up view and tight framing of Narcissus are typical of Freud’s many portraits of this early period, which frequently emphasize the subjects’ large, almond-shaped eyes. These are depicted in a meditative mood looking down, as in Narcissus, or looking upwards and away from the viewer. Reflection and mirroring were to become recurring themes in Freud’s work, particularly in his many self-portraits. The pose portrayed in Narcissus is later echoed in the painting Man’s Head (Self-Portrait I) 1963 (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) in which the artist’s head, propped with one arm cutting aggressively into the frame, looks down at a mirror not included in the work. Another self-portrait, Interior with Hand Mirror (Self-Portrait) 1967 (private collection), shows the artist’s face isolated in a hand mirror propped between two sections of window. His expression is contorted in a winking grimace as though he is attempting to see, a reminder that viewing is central to Freud’s process as a painter. In this image the mirror’s cropping has cut off the viewing part of him from his body. In a similar manner, Narcissus shows the subject cut off from the viewer by the exclusion of his viewing eyes, omitted from the bottom of the image. A more recent image, the print Self-Portrait: Reflection 1996 (Tate P11509), again refers to this circular process of mirroring and interior looking which is emphasised in its title.
David Alan Mellor, Interpreting Lucian Freud, London 2002, reproduced p.12 fig.4
Bruce Bernard and Derek Birdsall, Lucian Freud, London 1996
Lawrence Gowing, Lucian Freud, London 1982, reproduced p.63, pl.43