The Arcadian Shepherds: Nicolas Poussin

The Arcadian Shepherds: Nicolas Poussin

The Arcadian Shepherds, also known as Et in Arcadia ego or Les bergers d’Arcadie, is a 1628 painting by French Baroque artist Nicolas Poussin who specialized in the classical style and worked for most of his life in Rome. This work is located in the Louvre in Paris, France.

The Arcadian Shepherds has a classical but non-heroic subject and is the most famous version of the Arcadian myth presented with the captivating formula of its title.

We are witnessing a scene from an imagined Arcadia, a region at the very centre of the Peloponnese. The idealisation of the bucolic beauty of this half-mythical land is of ancient Roman origin. Virgil’s bucolic poem Eclogues, also known as Bucolics, did a lot to establish the notion of an idyllic green landscape that recalls the Greco-Roman idea of Elysium, a heavenly afterlife.

It is in fact in the fifth book of Virgil’s Eclogues that we find the suggestive scene of a group of Arcadian shepherds finding an inscription in the countryside dedicated to Daphnis, a mythical shepherd-poet from Sicily (inconsistencies of time or place having no bearing in Virgil’s poetics).

It is this image from Virgil that Poussin has portrayed. Four shepherds, three men and a woman, appear to have just chanced upon a monumental polygon in the wilderness constructed from rock and bearing some sort of inscription. One of the men is down on one knee and appears to be tracing with his fingertip the recessed lines of the characters cut into the rock.

Nicolas Poussin may be making an effort to form those lines into words, though we cannot help but think that the full sentence inscribed in that monument would be as cryptic to him as any individual word or letter.

The inscription, in Poussin’s version before us, reads: ‘ET IN ARCADIA EGO’ or The Arcadian Shepherds translated from Latin into English, or finally es bergers d’Arcadie in the artist Poussin’s native French.

That is not, of course, the message reported by Virgil. And that particular sentence was not, despite a great deal of fascination with Virgil’s imagery in the 15th and 16th-century Renaissance, known at all. The sinister ring of that intentionally serried formulation had to wait for the great rekindling of interest, in the Baroque age, for the classical motif of memento mori — an intimation to never forget that your existence is brief and hemmed in by death. Finally, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, best known as Guercino, produced, sometime between 1618 and 1622, a painting titled Et in Arcadia Ego or The Arcadian Shepherds.

In a penumbral event, two young shepherds look at a square assortment of rocks with a pierced human skull on top and a vivid though casual inscription on the topmost slab bearing those resounding words.

Poussin became quickly aware of Guercino’s narrative innovation. By 1627 he had created his own version, akin to Guercino’s only in theme. It might have come about as an express commission on Guercino’s model.

In counterposition to the painting of the 1630s before us, this early variant has the four rustics presented in a much more exuberant fashion: two of them are handling the inscription with some animation; one of them, much older, is reclining with his back to the spectator; and the exceptional female character, standing to the left rather than the right like in the 1630s version, appears unexpectedly dishevelled: the upper half of her robe falling down her right arm to reveal most of her right breast, and the lower hem of that robe pulled up by her right hand to reveal her leg almost as far up as the waistline.

The trees lean leftward from the right while the three standing shepherds are bending forwards to the right, thus creating an opposition of diagonal lines and an acute angle between them.

In the “true” version of The Arcadian Shepherds c. 1637 the vegetation stands upright in an unmenacing progression that takes the eye inward, to the line of mountains on the horizon. The four shepherds are displayed to advantage; their disposition is geometrical and harmonious, the midpoint between them the very inscription itself.

Crucially, the extraordinary female figure from before is substituted by a matron-like woman modelled upon Juno Cesi, a Greek statue held at the Museo Capitolino in Rome. Poussin appears also to have derived from the statue the form of the woman’s vestments. In the version of 1637 the woman is manifestly a figure of serene calm and stability set against the animation of the two men in the middle. Her left hand is resting on the back of one of them, as if to calm him down.

The true interpretation of ET IN ARCADIA EGO is debated. The point of contention is who the speaking subject of the sentence is. Its translation runs: “I too [am] in Arcadia”, or “I too [was] in Arcadia”. (The peculiar “et” is not, as usual, the conjunction “and” but the short form of the conjunction etiam, “also”.) Assuming, because of the memento mori message, that Death itself or a dead is communicating, the warning could imply both the presence of death in life — even in the most Edenic place on Earth, Arcadia — and the ephemeral nature of life, which, however successful, ends.

After Virgil had given Arcadia the quality of a literary topos, its name might have even suggested that artistic fame has a mortal enemy in Death (and in Time). It too might in the end be nothing more than an inscription on a monument.

Just like Anthony Powell found inspiration for his ten-volume novelistic cycle, A Dance to the Music of Time, in the homonymous painting by Poussin, so Evelyn Waugh, another English writer of the same generation, found in Poussin’s (and Guercino’s) lapidary phrase an encapsulation of a haunting sensation. Et in Arcadia Ego is the title of the first part of his best-known novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945).

The Arcadia of Waugh’s protagonist is the hazy days at a pre-war Oxford college spent in longings, friends, and wine. Moments which, without their inhabitant’s knowledge, were quickly passing never to return again.

The Arcadian Shepherds can be found in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France along with a number of other notable Nicolas Poussin works such as Saint John Baptising the People, The Apparition of the Virgin to Saint James the Great, The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert, The Rape of the Sabine Women and Moses Turning Aaron’s Staff into a Serpent.

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