Et In Arcadia Ego (hanging in Louvre Museum, Paris) must be one of Poussin’s most famous paintings. The main reason for this renown, according to critics (read Wikipedia article on Et In Arcadia Ego), lies in this piece being a visual representation of the art of painting, no less. Though this interpretation might seem remote, and self-referential, it becomes clearer upon closer examination.
Poussin painted two versions, the one below achieving the status it enjoys today: it depicts three shepherds and a woman gathered around a sarcophagus, engaged in mourning, reading, discussing, and contemplating the lapidary vision.
A universally accepted meaning of the phrase suggests that it’s Death’s proclamation – “even in Arcadia I exist” — that is, even in the most paradisaical of places (read full text Britannica article on Arcadia) there’s demise and decay.
The leap from this pastoral (even if dramatic) scene to the art of painting as such can be traced by focusing on the bearded kneeling shepherd. First, by touching the words he acknowledges the message and its meaning. Second, by the same gesture he comes in contact with his own shadow, thereby appearing to paint it. Why? Because there is only one way to cheat death, and that is by continuing to live in art – of painting in this case. Therefore, by the second effect he tries to symbolically overturn the first one – both, of course being part of a single action.
Shadow is often associated with death, which adds an ironic touch to the image. Escaping death by painting its symbolic representation might seem like a cruel joke that bares the hopelessness of even the most noble of endeavors. Poussin might have wished to present his views on the absolute inevitability of the end, and the futility of any resistance, even the most sophisticated – perhaps the futility of “everything” – suggesting a deeply philosophical, contemplative insight.
On a different note
When I look at this painting I recall, strangely enough, BBC documentaries on elephants. When these large beasts encounter the bones of their dead relatives, they too gather around in dramatic fashion, touch and feel the remains, clearly disturbed by the findings.
*this article was edited at a later date