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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
If my style of presenting information is close to you and you are interested in studying art, I can send you a free series of lessons to your email. For this, please fill in a simple form at this link.
See other readers’ comments below. It is a good addition to the article. You can also share your opinion about the painting and the artist, as well as ask your question to the author.