Nicolas Poussin - Et in arcadia ego

by Alexandra Tuschka

A massive gravestone is in the middle of a beautiful landscape. Reason enough for the three shepherds and the beautiful, monumental woman to stop and take a closer look. "Et in arcadia ego" is the inscription on the stone, which the dark-haired shepherd now deciphers. This saying also becomes the title of the painting, sometimes it is also referred to as "the Arcadian shepherds". The man on the right has adopted a pointing gesture - though he is not pointing at the inscription, but at the shadow of the middle man - an important detail. He turns questioningly, and a little anxiously, to the female figure. She is graceful, has a beautiful profile that corresponds to the ideal of antiquity and seems to be looking at the scene calmly and unagitatedly. She has one arm resting at her side and the other on the shepherd. The characters' clothing also does not correspond to the time of their creation in 1638. Rather, antique garments are recognisable here, and this is particularly well illustrated by the shoes and the lady.

Poussin, a representative of classicism, sets an example with this painting. His studies in Rome brought him into contact with Roman and Greek antiquity. These themes found their way into his ouevre. Most of his motifs come from ancient mythology.

This is also true of Arcadia, which is mentioned here and which can be traced back to a description in Virgil, among others. In the poetic imagination, it corresponds to a place without sorrows and full of joys. So what does the epitaph mean? "Et in arcadia ego" can be translated as "I too am in Arcadia". But who is this "I"? Is it death itself or possibly the person who now lies in the grave?

Information about this can be provided by pictorial precursors. Guernico, for example, had already captured the motif on canvas some years earlier and makes it much clearer what message is to be understood in this saying. Two shepherds are looking at a skull on a grave. This extremely striking vanitas symbol facilitates understanding. Now it becomes clear that we are dealing here with a message that we know all too well from art: "memento mori - remember that you are mortal." For even if Arcadia is a place full of joy and lightness, no one can escape death, not even those who are there.

A first version of the painting by Poussin himself also makes the scene easier to understand. The three people, two shepherds and a woman seem to come upon a grave unexpectedly. With curiosity and awe, they decipher the inscription. The figure in front is a personification of the river Alphaios, which flows through Arcadia. Here, too, the skull is not missing, and is still clearly visible placed on the lid.

In the later version it has completely disappeared. In this painting, the confrontation with one's own mortality is no longer viewed with fear, but with calm acquiescence. All gestures and looks point to this centre of the picture. Another piquant detail is noticeable here: the shadow of the kneeling man resembles a sickle. The fact that his counterpart is pointing to the silhouette and not to the inscription has been linked to all kinds of other questions, such as whether "pittura", the art of painting, is personified here in the female figure, and whether pointing to the shadow corresponds to a discovery of painting (i.e. of the image of something). The shadow as a symbol of death is also plausible. Not to be dismissed is the clear impression that the female figure appears stoic and somewhat removed in comparison to the men. In the first version, similar to the companions, she is still gripped by an agitated emotion.

The search for universal, always valid rules and forms of aesthetics was one of Poussin's main concerns. He subordinated everything else to this. This understanding of beauty, which is subject to certain rules, also emerges in this work and was decisive for the understanding of the academies in France until the end of the 19th century.

Although it does not appear so at first glance, the entire picture is well composed. Its creation was preceded by a long preoccupation with the motif: Poussin created small pen drawings and even wax figures, which he arranged on a stage, on the basis of which further new drawings were created. Therefore, a certain "stage-like quality" cannot be denied in this work either. The people around the grave roughly correspond to a circular or, to be more precise, a hectagonal shape.

The whole scene is embedded in the sensual twilight of a sunset. Thus another unnatural source of light comes into play, illuminating the front scene in a flat way. The trees provide a filigree grid of verticals. Also on Poussin's tomb is a plaster copy of what is probably his most famous work.

Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego

Oil on canvas, c. 1638, 85 x 121 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri - Et in Arcadia ego

Oil on canvas, 1616-1620, 78 x 89 cm, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego (Version 1)

Oil on canvas, c. 1630, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth