Metamorphosis of Narcissus: When Salvador Dalí met Sigmund Freud

Dawn Adès

The story of Narcissus, most famously told by Ovid, is a tragedy that has fascinated artists for over 2,000 years. Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí set about painting a canvas in homage to the myth in the Spring of 1937, and took the completed work with him to meet the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, in London in 1938. Dalì had long held Freud in great esteem, his canvases often swarming with references to the psychoanalyst’s ideas, and so the meeting was the culmination of a deep ambition.

In taking his painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus with him to meet Freud, Dalí had hoped to engage the doctor in conversation about the myth and psychoanalytic concept of narcissism. But the meeting didn’t go according to plan…

In this HENI Talk, hear renowned Surrealist scholar Dawn Adès recount the story of this historic meeting of minds, and discover some of the mind-boggling techniques Dalí employed in his masterwork.

2 comments on “Metamorphosis of Narcissus: When Salvador Dalí met Sigmund Freud

  1. Fantastic.

    The narrator, Dali, the whole story, Freud, the analysis of the masterpiece. I am stunned.

    I feel I will be addicted to this site.


  2. Yes indeed, you are right – it is a very thought provoking picture indeed and one I will study further with great interest.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

The story of Narcissus is a kind of tragedy, if you like. It’s about metamorphosis, it’s about change, death and love.

Narcissus was a very beautiful youth. Everyone fell in love with him: women, men, children, everyone. But he rejected all their advances. One of those who fell in love with him was the nymph Echo and when she was spurned, she just withered away from shame and ended up as no more than dry bones. Her voice remained and she but she could only echo what other people had said.

Oneday he was hunting and he went to rest in a glade where there was a beautiful pool. And he leant over to look in to the water and he saw his own reflection, of this very lovely youth, and he fell in love. He didn’t realise at first that it actually was himself. When he did realise, finally, that it was and that he could never reach this image in the water, he simply faded away. And when the mourners came to move his body they found a flower, the Narcissus, growing, and no body.

The myth of Narcissus, which is most famously told by Ovid, has been mined by artists for 2,000 years – very often in the context of a same-sex desire because, of course, Narcissus falls in love with his own image.

And I think that Dalí himself, who was probably ambivalent in terms of sexuality, was particularly fascinated by the myth for that reason.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus is a painting by Salvador Dalí that he finished in the spring of 1937, and then took with him to show Sigmund Freud in 1938 when he went to see him in London.

When Dalí went to see Freud, it was really the culmination of a long-held ambition. Dalí had read Freud as a young student in Madrid, in the mid 1920s, and when Dalí joined the Surrealist movement he found that his interest in Freud was thoroughly reciprocated by the Surrealists.

Surrealism was founded in 1924 by André Breton who published the Manifesto of Surrealism. And in that manifesto, Freud is really held up as the sort-of founder of many of the ideas that Surrealists were proposing to explore. And the fundamental aspect of Freud’s thought, and Freud’s writing, that had so attracted the Surrealists, was the idea that the unconscious is a kind of active part of our psyche. It’s sort of working away there, boiling away underneath somehow and our affecting our lives in in every way. The other aspect of Freud’s thought that was so important for the Surrealists was the relationship between the dreaming mind and the unconscious. That it’s through dreams, he thought, that one began to get some inkling of the way unconscious works.

Sigmund Freud was the father of psychoanalysis. That is the aim to explore mental states and neuroses basically, and he published a huge amount, and was immensely influential. One of the most important of his books was called the Interpretation of Dreams. And that was a fundamental book for so many artists and poets in the 20th century including Salvador Dalí.

Freud invented a method of consultation in his study. He had a couch, covered with a rather beautiful rug on, which the patient would lie and he would sit just behind them so they couldn’t really see him, and prompt the patient to talk. To remember their dreams for example and to mention any of the kind of associations of dreams at work, and then he would try to understand what had been going on in their mind. His idea was that he could through talking basically, through talking cure, he could he could cure people of their anxieties of their neuroses.

Freud was really fascinated by the creation of symbols. And by myths from the Classical Age which could be translated into the kinds of obsessions and neuroses that he saw in the modern age, so, you know he used the myth of Narcissus for his notion of narcissism, which was a stage of childhood developmentand he used Oedipus, the story of Oedipus for his idea of the Oedipal complex.

Freud loved antiquities. He had a considerable collection of Roman objects, Egyptian things as well as some prints from Renaissance artists, who he actually analysed through one of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings. This was one of the essays that that fascinated Dalí.

Among the other objects in in Freud’s collection of antiquities are some wonderful mirrors and the story of Narcissus is very closely linked to the idea of the mirror, to the idea of self-absorption. Some of the mirrors actually seem to be engraved with the little scenes which might suggest the link with the Narcissus myth.

But Freud was not really interested in art for its own sake. He was interested in it for how he could interpret it and he remained very suspicious of the way that the Surrealists were using his ideas.

André Breton had been in correspondence with Freud in the early 30s, and Freud really couldn’t see the point of painting dreams for their own sake. And so, there’s a letter from Freud to Breton saying ‘I’m sorry, I can’t, you know, I don’t understand what you’re doing perhaps I’m not made to understand it ‘I who am so removed from art’. So, he really regarded of course psychoanalysis as a science. And this I think is one of the keys to his response to Dalí’s painting.

When Dalí went to visit Freud in London in his study he took with him the painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus.

While he was trying to engage Freud in conversation, he was also drawing him, avidly. And there are several portraits of Freud by Dalí, pencil and pen and ink portraits, but one is not quite sure which one was the one that was done from life.

He was really hoping to engage Freud in a conversation about narcissism, but Freud really didn’t respond to Dalí’s attempts to draw him into a conversation.

And Dalí got more and more excited about this problem. And became more and more insistent that Freud should respond but he took absolutely notice of the painting, just gazed at Dalí and then turned to Stefan Zweig, the writer, who had brought Dalí and said ‘what an extraordinary example of a Spaniard this young man is, what a fanatic!’

And I think one of the reasons this meeting didn’t go according to plan is a clue in Freud’s diary which is that for the day he sees Dalí he writes in: ‘deafness, Salvador Dalí’. So, actually, he simply was not really able to hear. The next day, Freud wrote to Stefan Zweig thanking him for bringing yesterday’s visitor. He says that ‘hitherto, I had always regarded the Surrealists as basically 95% cranks, but your young visitor Dalí, has helped me change my opinion.’ He was really impressed by Dalí’s painting. So, although he hadn’t appeared to be engaging with, Dalí he had actually been attending to the painting and he was very impressed by it. He could see that Dalí had actually in the painting being able to reveal some ideas: ideas about Narcissus, about desire, and about death that Freud would normally regard as probably hidden in a painting.

Dalí said afterwards that Freud had said to him that what he saw in his paintings was not the unconscious, because Dalí had already done the work of analysis himself. And he was showing you in the painting his own as it were self-analysis, whereas in the work of the old masters, Freud had said, in the work for example of Leonardo da Vinci, what he looked for was unconscious signs of something that he could then interpret. Which in a way was true, because Dalí knew what he was doing. Dalí was painting in a very conscious way about the you know these particular forms of human development that that Freud analysed such as narcissism.

It’s a very unusual painting actually for Dalí. It shows you two prominent features in the foreground. On the left is the figure of Narcissus himself, the kind of golden youth whose head is bowed and he’s looking in the water. And to the right, is a fossil hand a stony hand holding an egg. The point is that these two configurations which apparently represent completely different things are exactly the same shape. So, the figure of Narcissus and the hand are exactly the same. The drawings that Dalí did for the painting show these two elements, the Narcissus figure and the hand, in one. What Dalí called a ‘double image’ – the figure and the hand you can’t really decide which is which necessarily.

And this was something that Dalí explored as a form of what he called ‘critical paranoia’. That is a kind of systematic misreading of the world around you, according to an overriding obsessional idea. Exploring paranoia was a way of exploring sort of multiple perceptions of the world.

You could say that the Metamorphosis of Narcissus painting is a unique example of this notion of the ‘double image’ because he separates out the two. I think it’s possible that one of the things Dalí was experimenting with there was the idea of stereoscopy. The stereoscope was a little camera-like thing, with two photographs put into it. And the two photographs were taken from very slightly different angles, of one single motif. And if you look through particular lenses at the photographs, they merge into one and spring into three dimensions. And I think Dalí’s idea, ideally, was that the optical effect of the painting would be that these two configurations, these two objects Narcissus and the hand would spring into one and turn into three dimensions. As it were, the metamorphosis would be actually enacted and become somehow real. A wonderful dream, but I think it partly lies behind this very extraordinary painting.

In a way, the whole story of Echo is like is a kind of metaphor for Dalí’s painting. There are so many echoes, there are so many forms that repeat. So, in a way, although Echo herself is not represented, there are echoes which recall the story, and recall the figure of Echo.

At the same time that he was painting the Metamorphoses of Narcissus, Dalí wrote a poem with the same title. Dalí wanted you to be able to, as it were, read the poem and see the painting simultaneously so that you would get his story of the painting in the poem. And there are things he develops in the poem that he talks more about than are necessarily immediately visible in the painting. He details the figures of the heterosexual group – which is the little group figures who are dancing in a circle in the background,and distinguishing that from Narcissus, this symbol of same-sex desire. And the hand which you can see is related to this obsession or fear of masturbation.

So, it’s certainly a painting which really does focus on the question of sexuality and desire. And I think that the way Dalí, as it were, elaborates on this, and the way he moves from the extraordinarily glowing golden, fiery, figure of Narcissus himself, to this cold, stony, or death-like hand is an extraordinary way of mingling love and death. I feel this love in death, death in love, theme which Dalí weaves into the whole issue of desire in that painting is really very important.

Dalí ends the poem by going through what he sees clearly as this terrifying metamorphosis, into the dead hand, terrifying hand. But there is hope at the end because the hand is holding this egg, and out of the egg sprouts Narcissus. And then the Narcissus turns out to be Gala, that is his partner, his muse, his wife.

And so it’s quite a shock, that he turns it away from Narcissus, this self-absorbed symbol of same sex desire, to a kind of heterosexual love at the end.

I think the Metamorphosis of Narcissus is undoubtedly his masterpiece. It continues to absorb you, I mean you have to go on looking at it you can’t solve it in one look, in one sort of regard. And in a way, you have a sense that things are changing in it. That it is it is almost alive.

Dalí’s painting metamorphoses this extraordinary myth, the myth of Narcissus.

With thanks to

Freud Museum London


Filmed on the occasion of Freud, Dalí and the Metamorphosis of Narcissus
An exhibition at Freud Museum London, 3 October 2018 to 24 February 2019



Egisto Sani


Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí

Getty Images

Library of Congress

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

National Museum Warsaw





9 Lives



Cooling off in the lake
Slavemotion / Getty Images


CU Water droplets falling on white narcissus flower
SimonSkafar / Getty Images


As the water evaporates from the soil fine cracks begin to appear
C R Laing / Getty Images


Human hand and sun light
themacx / Getty Images


Romeinse sculptuur van Narcissus, gerestaureerd door Valerio Cioli
Anonymous, c.1852


Sunlight reflection in the pond
Cyberoou / Getty Images


A Bather (Echo)
Jean-Jacques Henner, 1881
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Echo and Narcissus
John William Waterhouse, 1903
Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images


The Infant Bacchus Entrusted to the Nymphs of Nysa;
The Death of Echo and Narcissus (detail)
Nicolas Poussin, 1657
Harvard Art Museums


Alexandre Cabanel, 1874
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Caravaggio, 1597–1599
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica


White daffodil blossoming
BlackLight Films – Louie Schwartzberg / Getty Images


Narcissus Fresco
Villa di Diomede, Pompei, AD 60 – 79
Egisto Sani / Flickr
(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Echo and Narcissus, 1630, by Nicolas Poussin
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images


Narcissus at the Spring
Jules-Louis Machard, c.1872-1890
Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program


Salvador Dali at Punta dels Tres Frares, Catalonia, 1930s
© Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, DACS, 2019


Metamorphosis of Narcissus 
(Métamorphose de Narcisse)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), 1937
Oil paint on canvas, 510 x 780 mm
Inscribed ‘Gala Salvador Dalí 1937’ lower right
Tate, T02343
Purchased from the Edward James Foundation (Grant-in-Aid) 1979
Digital image © Tate, London 2019
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


Sigmund Freud Home Movies
Sigmund and Martha Freud with Paulette Lafargue in Grundlsee, Austria

Marie Sylvia de Montaigu / Getty Images


Sigmund Freud Home Movies
Sigmund reading a book in the garden of his summer home in Pötzleinsdorf
Marie Sylvia de Montaigu / Getty Images


Views of Spain (Archival 1952)
eyeidea / Getty Images


Group of Surrealists
Evening Standard / Stringer/ Getty Images


Andre Breton with glasses
Heritage Images / Getty Images


Sigmund Freud
Photo 12 / Getty Images


Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images


Title page of the original German edition of Sigmund Freud’s
Die Traumdeutung, Franz Deuticke, Leipzig & Vienna, 1899
Library of Congress


Sigmund Freud
Imagno / Getty Images


Bronze winged phallic amulet, Roman
© Freud Museum London


Mirror incised with design of a warrior, Etruscan
© Freud Museum London


Sigmund Freud Home Movies
Freud with his family, children in garden

Marie Sylvia de Montaigu / Getty Images


Oedipus and Antigone
Alexandre Kokular, c.1825-1828
National Museum Warsaw



Oedipus and the Sphinx
Gustave Moreau, 1864
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne
Leonardo da Vinci, c.1503
Louvre Museum


Bronze mirror depicting two naked women bathing, Etruscan
© Freud Museum London


Sigmund Freud Home Movies
Freud reading in his summer home garden
Marie Sylvia de Montaigu / Getty Images


Sketch of Sigmund Freud by Salvador Dalí, 1938
© Freud Museum London


Sketch of Sigmund Freud by Salvador Dalí, 1938
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


“morphologie” du crane de Sigmund Freud by Salvador Dalí, c.1939
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


Sigmund Freud, London, 1938
Marcel Sternberger / Getty Images


Smythson notebook containing list of Freud’s visitors, including Salvador Dalí, 1938-1939
© Freud Museum London


Freud’s handwritten diary notes for July 1938, including the entry for 9 July: “Deafness. Salvador Dalí”
© Freud Museum London


Diagram from Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinciby Sigmund Freud, 1910,
identifying the ‘vulture’ in The Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Leonardo da Vinci
From: Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. Translated by Alan Tyson.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1964. P. 66.


Salvador Dalí painting Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1936–1937
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


Study for “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” by Salvador Dalí
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


Study for “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” by Salvador Dalí
© Salvador Dalí, Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation/DACS, London 2019


Hovhannes Toumanian’s stereoscope
Photograph: Beko, 12 February 2019
(CC BY-SA 4.0)


The Crystal Palace, London: a sculpture gallery
Photograph: The London Stereoscopic Company, 1851-1862
Wellcome Collection
(CC BY-SA 4.0)


Narcissus Poeticus
Unidentified artist, American, mid-19th century
Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Gala Dalí on the cover of Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus
Published: Julien Levy Gallery, New York, 1937


Dawn Adès: interview’, The British Academy

Discover Pyschoanalysis’, Freud Museum London

Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, Tate Collections Online

Salvador Dali’s Biography’, Fundació Gala – Salvador Dalí

Surrealism’, MOMA Learning

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

American Art in the 1960s

American Art in the 1960s 59:52 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

'American Art in the 1960s' examines key figures in the realisation of the era’s major movements | Showing until 30th October, 2022

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things

Isabel Rawsthorne Rediscovered: The Poetry in Things 17:36 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Curator Carol Jacobi shines a light on the career of artist Isabel Rawsthorne (1912 – 1992), “a missing link of 20th century art”.

Surrealism: Imagining A New World

Surrealism: Imagining A New World 8:17 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Why did Surrealism appeal to artists across the world?