The Shepherds of Arcadia. Poussin’s most mysterious painting

Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia
Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia. 1650. The Louvre Museum, Paris
The painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) “The shepherds of Arcadia” is unlikely to attract your attention in the Louvre as it is. Unless you adore Poussin.
However, if you know the painting’s plot, it becomes almost the most interesting one among all the paintings in the world.
So, what do we see in the picture?
As judged by the name, we see three shepherds and a lady, whose presence doesn’t make much sense.
Obviously, it’s all going on in ancient Greece, as judged by chitons, chaplets and sandals.
And we even know the location. It is a place called Arcadia that looks extremely attractive: curly trees, rocks, and high blue sky.
The shepherds discovered an old gravestone and are trying to read an unknown phrase on it. And here the most interesting thing begins.
The phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” can be translated as “I also was in Arcadia”.

Arcadia as a clue

To understand its meaning, it is important to make it clear what Arcadia is so famous for.
Arcadia is a real place located in central Greece. In classical times, it was known only for cattle breeding. And shepherding was the main profession.
Shepherds led an ordered life and stayed in harmony with the nature. And gradually, a heavenly image of Arcadia was formed, as a place where people and the nature coexisted in harmony.
And now, the meaning of the mysterious phrase becomes much clearer.
The deceased is kind of speaking to the living — our life is swift-passing, we are all caducous. And even in such a heavenly place as Arcadia death awaits all of us.

Where did the story about the shepherds of Arcadia come from

The most amazing thing is that you won’t find such a plot by any of the ancient authors. Except for Arcadia existed in their times.
For the first time, we see this plot depicted by Poussin’s contemporary Guercino. He unequivocally tells us about the same thing by showing a smouldering skull in close-up — that there is death is even in Arcadia.
Guercino. Et in Arcadia ego.
Guercino. Et in Arcadia ego. 1618-1622. Palazzo Barberini, Rome
And it still remains a mystery, where Guercino took this phrase and the plot from. He didn’t have time to talk about it with Poussin. Guercino left Rome a year before the French artist arrived there.

An early version of “The Shepherds of Arcadia”

Poussin was so fascinated by the painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” that he created his own version. With a skull as well.
Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia.
Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia. 1627. The Art Collection of the Duke of Devonshire
And in 20 years he painted another version, which became the most famous one.
It is painted in an extremely recognizable classical style, implying that everything is subject to severe cannons. Everything is idealized. The slim and pretty shepherds. The traditional tricolor: red-blue-yellow.
The heroes are standing almost in a row, so that we can see each of them clearly. The idealized landscape.
Poussin removed the skull, at the same time getting rid of emotional Baroque. And made the plot more romantic and pastoral.
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The shepherd girl changes as well. In the first author’s version, she was a frivolous girl baring her breast easily.
However, in the later version, she turned into a stately lady. Pay attention to the fact that her skin is too white to belong to a shepherd girl. Moreover, she is the one to be the least surprised by the discovery.
She put her hand on a young shepherd’s shoulder, as if calming him down and saying that nothing can be done about it, life’s like that.
Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia (a fragment).
Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia (a fragment). 1650. The Louvre Museum, Paris
Probably, Poussin turned the shepherd girl into an allegory of wisdom. Which is quite common for the artist.
Appeared in the Renaissance era, allegories completely floated paintings after Poussin’s works.
Girls, depicting Glory, Mercy, Faith, and etc., firmly established themselves in the 17-18 centuries’ art.

The catch phrase “I also was in Arcadia”

Nowadays, the phrase “I also was in Arcadia” or “I was also born in Arcadia” is associated with the work by Poussin only.
This catch phrase was extremely popular in the centuries to follow. It can often be found in poetical works.
But for some add reason, it was ignored by painters.
In the history of art, Poussin’s painting remained almost the only picture depicting this plot (apart from the early work by Poussin himself and Guercino’s painting).


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8 thoughts on “The Shepherds of Arcadia. Poussin’s most mysterious painting”

  1. Les Bergers d’Arcadie …
    King Louis the 14th of France through his Exchequer was made aware that the painting held a secret he would have given much to discover.  It is well established that the tomb in the painting was at Les Pontils just across the ravine off the D613 Road to Arques – the Tomb was known locally as, ‘the Tomb of Arques’. The painting is a remarkable picture in that it shows impossible shadows.
    When one stands on the bridge at Pontils looking across at the old Tomb site one is facing south; even in Poussin’s day shadows did not fall on the north face of the edifice. Were that possible the shadow of the second Shepherd’s hand should be ‘touching’ the third Shepherd’s knee. An artist of Poussin’s  capabilities would understand shadows, the painting is contrived to make a point, the second shepherds finger together with the finger’s incorrectly aligned shadow is pointing at the shadow of his head – as is the third Shepherd. Poussin is drawing attention to the shadow of the second Shepherd’s head, it is the heads that hold the secret in the painting – the heads are hills, the painting is a map. Further, the second shepherd is pointing at the letter ‘R’ (followed by the ‘C’) in the word ARCADIA …. the hill of Rennes-le-Chateau – the first shepherd. The second shepherd is the low hill Bois du Lauzet, the 3rd is the hill Auriol and the tall shepherdess is the high hill Cardou (see French map 2347 Quillan Alet-les-Bains).

  2. I expected this to tell me something I didn’t already know. It begins by saying that the story behind the painting, or the story depicted in it, is the most fascinating in the history of painting, but I can – without searching my memory – think of others equally compelling, if not more so. A ‘memento mori’ was not an uncommon device for artists in those days, although who carved the inscription and its location in Arcadia lend it an air of mystery.
    It would have made a more satisfying read if the grammar and the phrasing were less clumsy and clichéd. Interesting pictures though!

  3. The Shepherds of Arcadia is a reference to the Eclogues written by Virgil. The poems are literally about shepherds in Arcadia. This Painting depicts one of those poems.

  4. I am obsessed with the mystery of Rennes Le Chateau. I recently bought a copy of this painting…I love it, and thank you for your background information.

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