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“The Arcadian Shepherds” by Nicolas Poussin

"The Arcadian Shepherds" by Nicolas Poussin

“Et in Arcadia Ego”

by Nicolas Poussin

“The Arcadian Shepherds” by Nicolas Poussin depicts a pastoral scene with idealised shepherds from classical antiquity gathered around a tomb. The painting’s original title was “Et in Arcadia ego”, a phrase that translates to “Even in Arcadia; there am I”. The traditional interpretation of this term is that “I” refers to Death, and “Arcadia” means a perfect land. It is thus a reflection on mortality, especially the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all worldly goods and pursuits.

The term Arcadia symbolised pure, rural, idyllic life, far from the city. This term was used as a contrast to the many Ancient Greeks who lived in the city-states close to the sea and led the busy urban life of the polis. Only the Arcadians, in the middle of the Peloponnese, which lacked cities led the ideal shepherd’s life.

There is, however, ambiguity in the phrase, and it is the subject of debate by historians. “Et in Arcadia ego” has been interpreted to mean “I too [was] in Arcadia” meaning that “the person buried in this tomb once lived in Arcadia”, suggesting that the person too once enjoyed the pleasures of life on earth. This reading was common in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today the interpretation is that “ego” is referring to “Death” and is the more modern interpretation. Either way, the message was meant to set up an ironic contrast between the shadow of death and the usual idle pleasures of ancient Arcadia.

Poussin painted two versions of the subject under the same title. His earlier version, painted in 1627, is held at Chatsworth House. This later version has a far more geometric composition, and the figures are much more contemplative. The mask-like face of the shepherdess echos the Classical “Greek profile”.

Et in Arcadia Ego

The official title of this painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” has been referenced in several literary, musical and artistic work which include:

  • The German version “Auch ich in Arkadien!” is used as the motto of his book “Italian Journey (1816–17)” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
  • It was the title of Book One of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited in 1945.
  • It is the title of a dystopian poem published by W. H. Auden in 1965.
  • It was the originally planned title of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 play, Arcadia.
  • It begins chapter 13 of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum.
  • It is one of the titles of “The Wanderer and his Shadow”, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human (1880).

Nicolas Poussin

Nicolas Poussin (1594 – 1665) was the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, although he spent most of his working life in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. He returned to Paris for a brief period to serve as First Painter to the King under Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, but soon returned to Rome and resumed his more traditional themes. He was a major inspiration for such classically oriented artists as Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Paul Cézanne.

The Arcadian Shepherds – Et in Arcadia Ego

  • Title:              The Arcadian Shepherds
  • Formal title:   Et in Arcadia ego
  • French:          Les bergers d’Arcadie
  • Deutsch:       Hirten in Arkadien
  • Artist:            Nicolas Poussin
  • Year:             1638
  • Medium:      Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: 85 cm × 121 cm (34.25 in × 47.24 in)
  • Museum:      Louvre

Nicolas Poussin

Reflections

  • “Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.” – Cézanne
  • “Poussin was one of the greatest innovators found in the history of painting.” – Ingres
  • Even in an ideal life, the shadow of death is there.

Explore the Louvre

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“Every time I leave a Poussin, I know better who I am.”
– Cézanne

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Photo Credit: 1) Nicolas Poussin [Public domain]

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