Nov 142009

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.

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Arcadian Shepherds, circa 1650
Nicolas Poussin
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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.

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The Shepherds and Shepher…
Nicolas Poussin
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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

  5 Responses to “Nicolas Poussin: Et In Arcadia Ego (Arcadian Shepherds)”

  1. Hello Elijah,
    I am really enjoying your website – I love the story of how you got started (the Stendahl Syndrome). Thank you for the description. I didn’t know there was a name for it.
    My first such experience happened when I encountered a huge Neil Welliver landscape. I didn’t actually faint, but I was certainly “swept away”. Since then, I now also paint huge landscapes and you may be interested that I have had something similar happen – the heart pounding rush – standing in front of a blank canvas as I begin to “see” the painting.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful website,
    Best Wishes,
    Anne Bevan
    Old Fort, North Carolina

  2. Hi Anne, thanks the visit and for the Neil Welliver reference, I wasn’t familiar with this painter until now! :)

  3. Hi there!

    this is fun! i put your feed in my sidebar and will visit every time you write up something i am interested in… too bad the feed does not allow me to feature thumbnails of your reproductions…

    anyway, i just thought i’d quibble (for the sake of making conversation, really):

    “The main reason for this renown, according to critics…”

    I believe the critics should not be taken too seriously. The painting owes its fame to the famous people who owned it and wrote it up. I don’t believe a word of the “allegory of painting” interpretation — just as I do not believe it represents (under an anagram) the tomb of Jesus. It’s hardly Poussin’s best, and certainly a strong argument could be made that Poussin is himself much overrated… similarly interesting interpretations could be made of my coffee cup (it’s a pretty good cup, as robin’s egg china goes, but certainly not the world’s most important Chinese export ever), given intelligent company and a few drinks…

    but quibbles aside, what a great project you’ve got here!
    keep it up!

  4. Thank you, Sir.
    I agree that ownership plays an important part in the history of a painting, but I disagree — I expect you expected this — about your attitude towards critics. After all, they are doing professionally what every one of us trying to do, which is understand and interpret a work of art. Why not learn from them? It occurred to me, however, that perhaps a phrasing in the line of “One of the reasons” would be more accurate.

    Let me know how that Proust reading going… I’m about to finish the second book, but seem to have gotten stuck.


  5. On the top of Parchment One is a symbol which will draw through the heads of the shepherds in Poussin’s painting – the heads are hills – the painting is a map – the second shepherd is pointing at the ‘R’ (followed by the ‘C’) in aRCadia – Rennes-le-Chateau – the lower ‘tail’ of the symbol is open ended and on a map goes straight to Rennes les Bains – The symbol on P2 is Poussin’s monogram (N Pousin) … which doubles to name the place of the treasure … st NAZ(aire Et Celse), the church at R les B.


    The Secret Church, the Treasure of Rennes-le-Chateau.

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