Ovid (Metamorphosis 3:339-510) relates how Echo was condemned by the goddess Juno to repeat only the last words that were spoken to her. Narcissus, as a punishment for spurning Echo, was made to fall in love with his own reflection and pined away gazing at himself in a pool. In the present picture Cupid draws an arrow intended for Narcissus.
The whereabouts of this picture was unknown after the 1874 sale, when it was sold with a full attribution to Poussin, and none of the recent literature on Poussin makes direct reference to it. It is, however, quite possible that it is the picture bought by the Lyonnais collector Balthazar de Monconys (1611-1665) during a visit to Rome in 1664. In the journals he kept on his travels, de Monconys describes how on 31 May 1664 he purchased a picture by Poussin as well as pictures by 'Gaspre' and Titian. Eight days later he describes how he went to see the artist to verify that his picture was indeed by Poussin: 'je fus a la place d'Espagne voir M. Poussin, qui reconnut et advoua le tableau de Narcisse que j'avais de luy' (B. de Monconys, Journal des Voyages de Monsieur de Monconys conseiller du Roy en ses conseils d'Estat et privé et Lieutenant Criminel au siège presidial de Lyon, Lyon, 1665-6, p. 458).
De Monconys, a man of modest means, was only one of a number of Lyonnais collectors who sought to acquire Poussin's work. Indeed, three of the artist's most important patrons were from Lyon: Jean Pointel (who owned no fewer than fourteen pictures by the artist); Jacques Serisier (who owned a self-portrait); and the silk manufacturer Reynon.
Poussin painted at least two other compositions depicting Narcissus. André Felibien recorded one as being in the collection of André Le Nôtre in 1685 (Entretiens sur la Vie et les Ouvrages des plus excellens peintres anciens et modernes, Nicolas Poussin, 8e Entretien, Paris, 1685, IV, p. 399). This picture depicted Narcissus in the company of Echo. Another, now in the Louvre, is generally believed to be that listed in the 1669 inventory of the deceased Angelo Giori (see P. Rosenberg, catalogue of the exhibition, Nicolas Poussin, 1594-1665, Grand Palais, Paris, 1994, p. 193, no. 38). Von Sandrart also refers to a Narcissus by Poussin, although he gives no details about it, and it is unclear to which picture he is referring. (J. von Sandrart, 'Teutsche Academie der eldern Bau, Bild und Muhleren-Künste, Nuremberg, 1675, IV, XXVI, p. 368).
Sir Denis Mahon has tentatively proposed a dating of c. 1627 for the present work, but notes that this may need to be revised after the picture has been restored. This date would make it broadly contemporary with the Louvre Echo and Narcissus and situate it in a period when the artist favoured scenes with mythological figures set in bucolic landscapes. The figure of Narcissus in the present picture can be compared to that of Cephalus in Cephalus and Aurora (National Gallery, London), considered to have been painted before 1630, and to the Bacchus in the Nationalmuseum of Stockholm, dated by Rosenberg c. 1626-7.