Dangerous Beauty: Narcissus, Dorian Gray and Des Esseintes

Narcissus was a Greek hero of renowned exterior beauty but a flawed interior. Both nymphs and youths loved him and he cruelly rejected them. Unable to love others Nemesis condemns him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. When he realizes he cannot posses the handsome image he dies and goes to the Underworld where he gazes at his visage in the river Styx. Many artists including Hungarian Gyula Benczúr (1844 – 1920) and Italian Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 –1610) have depicted the myth. Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854 –1900) retold the story in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Pictured is a 1925 edition of the work illustrated by Henry Keen. The reflection that the young and beautiful Gray falls in love with is his own portrait. Gray sells his soul so that the painting will age instead of his physical being. Influenced by an unnamed corrupt French novel he goes onto live a hedonistic and debauched life. It is believed the book was the 1884 Against Nature or A Rebours, by Joris-Karl Huysmans. The protagonist is Des Esseintes a perverse aesthete who insulates himself from the real world with beauty and culture. At one point he decides to gild and encrust a living tortoise's shell with esoteric gem stones in an ornate Japonesque pattern. The turtle is to wander back and forth across an Oriental carpet catching light in the stones' facets. Sadly the weight and wealth are too much for the common animal and he dies. Illustration is by Arthur Zaidenberg for the 1931 edition.