Nicolas Poussin: Shepherds in Arcadia - 1638–40
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Three men and a woman, gather round a mysterious tomb which they have discovered in wild mountainous countryside. The woman is dressed in classical garb, the men are idealised shepherds. The composition is ordered with mathematical precision. One of the men kneels and traces a line of text which has been engraved on the side of the tomb. Closer inspection reveals that the inscription reads Et in Arcadia ego. What does it all mean?
We may well ask. The cryptic Latin legend has sparked a maelstrom of conflicting interpretations down the centuries from grammarians and art historians alike. A literal translation of ‘And / Even in Arcadia I’ doesn’t get us very far. However, a more rounded translation ‘Even in Arcadia, there I am’ (i.e. Death) brings us closer to the intended meaning. The same Latin phrase appeared in two earlier paintings, first by Guercino in the early 1620s, in which a skull is used as an implied mouthpiece for Death, and secondly by Poussin, in an earlier version of this picture painted in about 1630 (now at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England) in which a skull also appears lodged on top of the tomb.
However, Poussin seems to have moved away from this interpretation of the phrase in this painting made about five years after the Chatsworth version.
But first we need to identify precisely where Poussin’s bucolic cast are supposed to be. We are certainly not in the unthreateningly beautiful pastoral scenery that we find in many of Poussin’s landscapes, based on the countryside around Rome. The inscription on the tomb tells us we are in Arcadia which was, and still is, an actual place in Greece. However, the artist sets his scene not in the remote and rugged landscape of the central Peloponnese (which, of course he had not visited) but in the fabled realm of Pan, a place that exists only in the world of myth.
The denizens of the real Arcadia were primitive herdsmen far from the civilization of Athens. It was the Roman poet Virgil who invented the idea of Arcadia as a lost idyll, a world of ease, simple pleasures and eternal spring, inhabited by musical, poet-shepherds. It was Virgil’s writings, suffused with a gentle melancholy, which inspired Boccaccio and later Renaissance writers to revive the nostalgic idea of Arcadia.
The phrase which appears in the paintings by Guercino and Poussin is a minuscule part of this Renaissance (and later) Arcadian literature. It seems that the wording may have been coined by Giulio Rospigliosi, (created a cardinal in 1657 and pope – as Clement IX – in 1667). He was a man of letters who wrote poetry and operatic libretti and it was Rospigliosi who commissioned this painting from Poussin and who might have suggested changes from the earlier Chatsworth version and also the interpretation of the phrase it contained. For this painting now conveys a different mood from that of his earlier picture. Gone is the Death’s head skull; now the shepherds meditate on the beauty of a lost past and contemplate mortality. In place of a warning regarding the ever-present menace of Death (Even in Arcadia, there I am) we now have a scene that reflects a different interpretation of the inscribed phrase (roughly, I too lived in Arcady) and conjures up, in the words of Erwin Panofsky, ‘the retrospective vision of unsurpassable happiness, enjoyed in the past, unattainable ever after, yet enduringly alive in the memory: a bygone happiness ended by death…’
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1640 Jacob Jordaens: The King Drinks, Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
1640 Francisco de Zurbarán: The Bound Lamb (Agnus Dei), Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado