The Art of Nicolas Poussin


Page 3 (62-94)

Paintings: (1-31) . (32-61) . (62-94) . (95-122) . (123-154) . (155-186) . (187-216) . (217-248) .(249-280) .(281-310) Drawings: (1-40) . (41-80) . (81-120) . (121-160)

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

The Shepherds of Arcadia.
1627. Oil on canvas.
The Duke of Devonshire and the
Chatsworth Settlement Trustees,
Chatsworth, UK.

Et in Arcadia ego' is a phrase coined by Virgil and used in 17th century Italy expressing, in an elliptical way, the humanistic sentiment: Even in Arcadia I (i.e. Death) am to be found. That is to say, even the escapist, pastoral world of Arcady is no refuge from death. The words feature in paintings from that time inscribed on monumental stonework, especially a tomb, which stands in rural surroundings. The earliest representation of the theme by Guercino (Galleria Corsini, Rome) shows two shepherds coming unexpectedly upon a skull - the typical memento mori - that lies on a piece of fallen masonry bearing the words 'Et in Arcadia ego'.

In the hands of Poussin who made two versions the sense was gradually modified. Shepherds are seen before a tomb deciphering the inscription with an air of melancholy curiosity. The skull is no longer significant or is omitted. The words now seem to imply an epitaph on the person - perhaps a shepherdess - who lies entombed: 'I too once lived in Arcady', an alteration to the meaning that somewhat stretches the grammar of the original Latin.

In this version all sense of surprise has been removed, and instead, the shepherds are arranged in attitudes of contemplation round the tomb in the countryside. The artist has lost all interest in story-telling, and has concentrated on a totally static scene. No pleasure is taken in surface texture, and the whole is hard and cold, with the figures in statuesque poses.

The other, less severe version of the subject by Poussin is at Chatsworth

by Marc Wiesmann, Professor of French and Classics

Arcadia is an actual region of Greece, a series of valleys surrounded by high mountains and therefore difficult of access. In very ancient times, the people of Arcadia were known to be rather primitive herdsmen of sheep, goats and bovines, rustic folk who led an unsophisticated yet happy life in the natural fertility of their valleys and foothills. Soon, however, their down-to-earth culture came to be closely associated with their traditional singing and pipe playing, an activity they used to pass the time as they herded their animals. Their native god was Pan, the inventor of the Pan pipes (seven reeds of unequal length held together by wax and string). The simple, readily accessible and moving music Pan and the Arcadian shepherds originated soon gained a wide appreciation all over the Greek world. This pastoral (in Latin "pastor" = shepherd) music began to inspire highly educated poets, who developed verses in which shepherds exchanged songs in a beautiful natural setting preserved pristine from any incursions from a dangerous "outside." In the third century BC, a Sicilian poet, Theocritus, created a literary genre called "bucolic poetry" (from the Greek "bukolos," a herdsman), poems called "Idylls" that used these exchanges of verses by fictional shepherds as a compositional strategy. Mainly, these idealized shepherds recounted their heterosexual or homosexual love affairs and praised the poetry they loved and the master singers they admired. Two centuries later, the greatest of Roman (and perhaps of European) poets, Virgil (70-19 BC), used Theocritus's Greek Idylls in order to create in Latin 10 masterpieces of bucolic poetry, known as the "Eclogues" or "Bucolics." Unlike Theocritus, who had placed his shepherds in Sicily, Virgil locates them back in Arcadia, an Arcadia, however, which has features strikingly resembling those of Northern Italy, where Virgil was born. Just as their Theocritean counterparts, the inhabitants of Virgil's Arcadia sing about love and its poetry, but they also make several crucial references to the political situation of Virgil's turbulent times. Many subsequent readers have in fact insisted that the "Eclogues" are stuffed full of references to politics and politicians, such as Julius Caesar and Octavian (Augustus Caesar). Virgil's poetic superiority has insured that his "Eclogues" never remained unknown in all the subsequent centuries of European culture. They became especially popular and imitated in the Italian, Spanish, French and English Renaissances of the 14th to 17th centuries, a period in which a type of verse called Pastoral Poetry was much appreciated by the intellectual and cultural elites. Parallel to the literary vogue of pastoral there existed in this period a rich pictorial tradition, paintings and prints representing shepherds and shepherdesses in a bucolic or idyllic setting of forests and hills. In the seventeenth century, the French painter Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) used this pictorial tradition to paint one of his most famous canvasses, known as "The Arcadian shepherds" or as "ET IN ARCADIA EGO" (1647). This painting represents four Arcadians, in a meditative and melancholy mood, symmetrically arranged on either side of a tomb. One of the shepherds kneels on the ground and reads the inscription on the tomb: ET IN ARCADIA EGO, which can be translated either as "And I [= death] too (am) in Arcadia" or as "I [= the person in the tomb] also used to live in Arcadia." The second shepherd seems to discuss the inscription with a lovely girl standing near him. The third shepherd stands pensively aside. From Poussin's painting, Arcadia now takes on the tinges of a melancholic contemplation about death itself, about the fact that our happiness in this world is very transitory and evanescent. Even when we feel that we have discovered a place where peace and gentle joy reign, we must remember that it will end, and that all will vanish.

For a fundamental discussion of Poussin's great painting, see Erwin Panofsky's essay in his book "MEANING IN THE VISUAL ARTS". In this essay, he analyzes brilliantly the possible interpretations of the expression ET IN ARCADIA EGO.

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.


Dido and Aeneas and Rinaldo
Gathering of Manna.
Oil on canvas.
Louvre, Paris, France.
Moses and The Burning Bush
Moses Bringing Forth Water from the Rock
Moses Exposed by His Mother

Same as this earlier one labelled The Exposition of Moses
Moses Striking The Rock To Get Water
Moses Turning Aarons Staff Into A Snake
Moses Sweetening The Bitter Waters of Marab
Baltimore Museum of Art.
Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons.
c. 1629-30.
Oil on canvas.
Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
Hagar and the Angel
Holy Family on the Steps,
Unknown Artist.
The Holy Family In Egypt

The Holy Family with 10 Figures
circa 1650
oil on canvas
33 1/8 x 43 (84.1 x 109.2 cm)
Roscoe and Margaret Oakes Collection 75.2.4

The Holy Family

Ecole française - Période baroque
Dimensions : 122 cm x 94 cm
Matériaux : Peinture à l'huile sur toile
Date : vers 1650
Modèles :
Sainte Elisabeth, Saint Jean l'Evangéliste, Jésus-Christ, Sainte Vierge, Saint Joseph
En relation avec : Louis XIV Louis Dieudonné (le Roi Soleil)
Musée du Louvre
Aile Richelieu - Deuxième étage - Section 14
Acquisition : Collection de Louis XIV (1685)

The Holy Family with Infant
The Holy Family with St Elizabeth
The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt,
ca. 1627
Oil on canvas;

30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm)
Bequest of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann, 1996 (1997.117.6)
The Holy Family with St John
The Holy Family with St John Holding a Cross
The Holy Family with St John A 3rd version
The Holy Family.
Oil on canvas.
The Detroit Institute of Arts,
Detroit, USA.
The Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist and St. Elizabeth,
Nicolas Poussin
French, 1594-1665
Oil on canvas
39-5/8 x 52-1/8 in. (100.6 x 132.4 cm)
Jointly owned by the Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
© 2002 Norton Simon Art Foundation

This is one of Poussin's most lyrical depictions of the Holy Family. The Virgin and Saint Joseph appear to smile as Saint John and Christ playfully embrace. A staff and a bowl at Saint John's feet refer to his wandering in the desert. On the right is a procession of Christ's first martyrs, the Holy Innocents. Their gestures point to the Christ Child, whose sacrifice on the cross will redeem their martyred souls. Two Innocents carry a baptismal font, one carries the Shroud of the Passion and another kneels to adore the Holy Child. In the distance, a family in a boat and horsemen on land recall the Holy Family's flight into Egypt to save the Christ Child from death and the Innocents who were killed in His place.
The Holy Family with Two Children

Name and date of painting unknown by me for now.
The Holy Family.
Oil on canvas.
The Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, USA
The Holy Family
around 1632
oil on canvas.
The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt,
c. 1627.
The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt
The Return of the Holy Family to Nazareth
St Margaret
latter 1630's
The Nativity

Paintings: (1-31) . (32-61) . (62-94) . (95-122) . (123-154) . (155-186) . (187-216) . (217-248) .(249-280) . Drawings: (1-40) . (41-80) . (81-120) . (121-160)