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Thursday, February 17, 2011

~ ET IN ARCADIA EGO ~

Les Bergers d'Arcadie (The Arcadian Shepherds)




NICOLAS POUSSIN


'Et in Arcadia Ego'
1637-39
Oil on canvas, 185 x 121 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris


To literate people in the 17th century the name Arcadia readily evoked the pastoral tradition, that easy going genre of poetry that had developed in parallel with epic writing since the time of the classical Greeks. The tradition stems from the supposedly carefree, open-air life enjoyed by shepherds and shepherdesses who spent all summer guarding their flocks, thus giving them plenty of time in which to play their flutes and compose poetry.
The literary sources are numerous - from the Eclogues or Bucolics of Virgil to the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro (1502) - all invoking an imaginary place, a "kingdom of Utopia". However the phrase ET IN ARCADIA EGO can not be traced to any known classical source. The Latin words means "Even in Arcadia I exist", where "I" is considered to refer to death.
The visual source for the painting is certainly found in its celebrated precursor by the Bolognese artist Guercino (1591-1666), painted around 1618-1620 and now in the Galleria Corsini, Rome. This was in all likelihood commissioned by the Florentine Barberini family, amongst the most important patrons of the arts in Rome, and notably cardinal Francesco Barberini who had commissioned "The Death of Germanicus". Was it this man who informed Poussin of the work by Guercino?
Poussin in fact painted two works on the "Death in Arcadia" theme. The earlier painting from around 1630-1632 (now in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England) shows two shepherds and their charming female companion discovering with shock that a tomb bearing the disturbing message exists in their idyllic countryside. 
The Shepherds of Arcadia.
1627. Oil on canvas. 
The Duke of Devonshire and the
Chatsworth Settlement Trustees,
Chatsworth, UK
.
They are depicted leaning forward anxiously, confronting the fearsome discovery. As in the Guercino work, but with less prominence, on top of the tomb rests a skull - an essential attribute of Memento mori. Poussin also adds the river god, Alpheus, to the assembly. The face of the young girl gives a note of melancholy and this is an altogether more serious and solemn work than his second painting on this theme.
As with the first version, we don't know who commissioned our subject painting (executed around 1638-1640 and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris), however it was destined to become much more famous. In 1685 it enered the collection of Louis XIV and over the next two centuries inspired artists, writers and poets alike. It was this painting which would be copied in bas-relief by Louis Deprez in the 19th century for the monument conceived by Chateaubriand in Rome at San Lorenzo in Lucina to mark Poussin's burial place.
The Louvre painting, monumental and silent, shows a more relaxed group around the tomb who, instead of reacting dramatically, seem to be pondering the meaning of the inscription. Here Poussin does not portray the simple carefree shepherds who are supposed to inhabit Arcadia, but instead classically formed, sober and dignified figures from antiquity.
 Indeed the young woman, standing erect to the right of the symmetrical group and slightly in the foreground, manifests the classical ideal with smooth brow, fine nose, elegant proportions and statuesque bearing. 
The skull is gone, so who now pronounces ET IN ARCADIA EGO ? The historian Panofsky suggests a change in interpretation of the subject, stating: "The Louvre painting no longer represents a dramatic encounter with Death, but a contemplative meditation on the idea of mortality." Claude Lévi-Strauss has recently suggested, rather than the inversion of the normal Latin formula, as stated by Panofsky, that it is the so static girl who represents Death or Destiny. In this sense it is she who pronounces the fateful words, suggested to us by the young shepherd on the right who turns to face her whilst pointing to the inscription.


Another Opinion:
To literate people in the 17th century the name Arcadia readily evoked the pastoral tradition, that easy going genre of poetry that had developed in parallel with epic writing since the time of the classical Greeks. The tradition stems from the supposedly carefree, open-air life enjoyed by shepherds and shepherdesses who spent all summer guarding their flocks, thus giving them plenty of time in which to play their flutes and compose poetry.
The literary sources are numerous - from the Eclogues or Bucolics of Virgil to the Arcadia of Jacopo Sannazaro (1502) - all invoking an imaginary place, a "kingdom of Utopia". However the phrase ET IN ARCADIA EGO can not be traced to any known classical source. The Latin words means "Even in Arcadia I exist", where "I" is considered to refer to death.
The visual source for the painting is certainly found in its celebrated precursor by the Bolognese artist Guercino (1591-1666), painted around 1618-1620 and now in the Galleria Corsini, Rome. This was in all likelihood commissioned by the Florentine Barberini family, amongst the most important patrons of the arts in Rome, and notably cardinal Francesco Barberini who had commissioned "The Death of Germanicus". Was it this man who informed Poussin of the work by Guercino?
Poussin in fact painted two works on the "Death in Arcadia" theme. The earlier painting from around 1630-1632 (now in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, England) shows two shepherds and their charming female companion discovering with shock that a tomb bearing the disturbing message exists in their idyllic countryside. They are depicted leaning forward anxiously, confronting the fearsome discovery. As in the Guercino work, but with less prominence, on top of the tomb rests a skull - an essential attribute of Memento mori. Poussin also adds the river god, Alpheus, to the assembly. The face of the young girl gives a note of melancholy and this is an altogether more serious and solemn work than his second painting on this theme.
As with the first version, we don't know who commissioned our subject painting (executed around 1638-1640 and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris), however it was destined to become much more famous. In 1685 it enered the collection of Louis XIV and over the next two centuries inspired artists, writers and poets alike. It was this painting which would be copied in bas-relief by Louis Deprez in the 19th century for the monument conceived by Chateaubriand in Rome at San Lorenzo in Lucina to mark Poussin's burial place.
The Louvre painting, monumental and silent, shows a more relaxed group around the tomb who, instead of reacting dramatically, seem to be pondering the meaning of the inscription. Here Poussin does not portray the simple carefree shepherds who are supposed to inhabit Arcadia, but instead classically formed, sober and dignified figures from antiquity. Indeed the young woman, standing erect to the right of the symmetrical group and slightly in the foreground, manifests the classical ideal with smooth brow, fine nose, elegant proportions and statuesque bearing. The skull is gone, so who now pronounces ET IN ARCADIA EGO ? The historian Panofsky suggests a change in interpretation of the subject, stating: "The Louvre painting no longer represents a dramatic encounter with Death, but a contemplative meditation on the idea of mortality." Claude Lévi-Strauss has recently suggested, rather than the inversion of the normal Latin formula, as stated by Panofsky, that it is the so static girl who represents Death or Destiny. In this sense it is she who pronounces the fateful words, suggested to us by the young shepherd on the right who turns to face her whilst pointing to the inscription.



Bibliography
E Panofsky - "Et in Arcadia Ego. On the conception of Transience in Poussin and Watteau", Philosophy and History, Essays presented to E Cassirer, Oxford 1936.


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