Memento Mori and Exactitude of Gesture in Poussin’s Second Et in Arcadia Ego

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2628

One of the most remarkable artists of the seventeenth century, and maybe “[t]he greatest of the ‘academic’ masters” (Gombrich, 1951, p. 294), was Nicolas Poussin. From amongst his voluminous output, the second version of the motif Et in Arcadia Ego, also referred to as Arcadian Shepherds, in which a group of youths in idyllic landscape find an old tomb with an inscription on it, is one of his “most popular but also most problematic works” (Heehs, 1995, p. 214). Lawrence D. Steedel argued that this canvas is a paradigmatic piece not only “for our estimate of Poussin’s … stature as an artist of unsurpassed powers” in European painting, but also for the traditions “of pastoral elegy, Baroque classicism, and the history of ideas” (1975, p. 99). It is a work of concentrated meaning and symbolism that surpasses the previous versions of the theme, as well as those that followed it (Verdi, 1979, p. 102).

This essay will trace the evolution of the Et in Arcadia Ego subject from its origin in Guercino, through Poussin’s first version, to its sophistication in the second, focusing on the refinement of the memento mori element in it and concluding with the dispersal of a confusion about one of the gestures in the later painting.

“[K]nown since the eighteenth century as the ‘painter-philosopher’” (Heehs, 1995, p. 214), Nicolas Poussin was born in 1594 of a modest, peasant, family in a Normandy village (Blunt, 1957, p. 158). In 1612, the young Poussin went to Paris. Little is known about this section of his life, but it is likely that he studied engravings after works by Giulio Romano and Raphael in the Royal Library, as well as collections of Roman statuary and reliefs; furthermore, it is believed that he was given access to the royal art collection, in which he saw originals by Raphael and Titian (Blunt, 1957, pp. 158-159). In 1624, after two unsuccessful attempts, Poussin managed to relocate to Rome. His choice of city should not be surprising, since “Rome, at the time, was the centre of the civilized world” (Gombrich, 1951, p. 292). Yet he first spent time in Venice, where he probably saw more works by Titian.

During the first years of his life in the Eternal City, he experimented with French Mannerism and Venetian Baroque aesthetics. However, he “studied the classical statues with passionate zeal”, wanting “their beauty to help him convey his vision of bygone lands of innocence and dignity” (Gombrich, 1951, p. 294). His many drawings show that he made études after Greek and Roman artworks, some of which from life, others from the Pozzo collection of drawings and engravings (Friedlaender and Blunt, 1974, p. 25). Perhaps this enabled the shift in his work that came at the end of the 1620s. Instead of trying to get the big commissions for palaces and churches, he started painting relatively small pictures for private patrons (Blunt, 1957, p. 160). And around this time, he completed his first version of Et in Arcadia Ego, which today is part of the collection of the Duke of Devonshire in Chatsworth.

The correct translation of “Et in Arcadia Ego”, which appeared for the first time in an earlier painting by Guercino (Heehs, 1995, p. 216), is not completely settled. The more common belief is that it says “Even in Arcadia am I”, meaning that “death is encountered even among the greatest felicities” (Klein, 1937, p. 314). However, some maintain that the more grammatically correct translation is “I too lived in Arcadia”, i.e. “I too once enjoyed heavenly joys on earth”. Some argue that the grammatically correct translation applies to the paintings by Guercino and the Poussin in Chatsworth, whilst the “incorrect” translation should be applied to the second Poussin version, now in the Louvre (Heehs, 1995, p. 217).

The general consensus is that Poussin saw the painting by Guercino (Heehs, 1995, p. 216), which inspired him to create his own version. The Arcadian Shepherds by Guercino was finished between 1618 and 1622, and is now in Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. In this dramatic canvas, two young shepherds discover an ancient tomb, with a memento mori skull on top of it and the inscription ‘ET IN ARCADIA EGO’ hidden from their startled eyes. Painted in the manner of Baroque realism, this work exhibits the shocking moment of discovery of the skull, “[i]ts gruesomeness … heightened by a gnawing rat, a worm, and a fly” (Klein, 1937, p. 317), as well as a snake, in the right low corner, just below the inscription.

Although “Poussin has adopted the Baroque dramatic viewpoint” (Klein, 1937, p. 317) for his picture in Chatsworth, it is quite different from the Guercino. In it, on a background of expressive sky and trees, two shepherds and a shepherdess lean towards an ancient tomb, trying to decipher its inscription, whilst a fourth figure, an old man, sits on the foreground pouring water from an amphora. There are two major differences with the Guercino painting. First, all the gruesomeness is eliminated; the only literal memento mori left is a neglected skull in the shadows at the top of the tomb, about which the spectator is left wondering whether or not it has been already noticed by the shepherds. Second, Poussin “has made the legend ‘ET IN ARCADIA EGO’ … into a pictorial element of prime importance” (Klein, 1937, p. 317), whilst in the earlier picture it remained hidden from the shepherds. The tone of this painting is one of disillusionment and melancholy and is characteristic for Poussin’s work from this period (Blunt, 1957, p. 161). The consolation that his works of that time offer comes in the form of sensory pleasures. However, it is important to stress that Poussin is not supportive of some form of unbridled hedonism. On the contrary, what he suggests is a form of  “a refined sensuousness … an intellectual epicureanism which realized that the pleasures which the arts offer to the mind through the senses are more lasting and more reliable than those which appeal only to the senses and leave the mind unaffected” (Blunt, 1938, p. 100).

Unlike in his previous work, Poussin’s first Arcadian Shepherds manifests a considerable influence by Titian, mostly in the stormy background and in the ardent young woman, whose “erotic appeal … is used to heighten the dramatic contrast between the pleasures of youth” (Klein, 1937, p. 317) and death. About a decade had to pass for him to fully embrace classicism. In his works from the end of the 1630s, the influence of Titian is replaced by that of the Greco-Roman antiquity and Raphael. His paintings become meticulously composed, with precise gestures and readable expressions, emphasising the psychological aspect of the explored themes. Poussin’s belief was “that the spectator should study every group in the composition and be able to decipher the exact feelings of each figure and his function in the action as a whole” (Blunt, 1957, p. 163), which is what scholars have been trying to do with his second Et in Arcadia Ego for quite some time.

This latter picture is the result of a journey from the Baroque excitement and drama of the Guercino and the early Poussin, to the contemplation, calm and classical order that are characteristic for the master’s mature work. It presents a beautiful, albeit simple Arcadian valley, in the forefront of which three young shepherds “and a fair and dignified young woman have gathered around a large tomb” (Gombrich, 1951, p. 294). It is the product of the new “severe and learned Poussin” (Verdi, 1979, p. 97) that exhibits “his poetic power of reflecting philosophical ideas in pictorial form” (Steefel, 1975, p. 99). Unlike the earlier air of disillusionment, the mood here is “one of contemplative resignation” (Blunt, 1938, p. 99), usually related to “stoic calm in the face of death” (Bernstock, 1986, p. 63).

In contrast with the previous two versions, this one is devoid of exposed skulls and bones. However, Walter Friedländer describes it as a sophisticated “memento mori of the transience of life and the importance of one to be prepared for the end” (1966, p. 82). This message is conveyed through subtle means and with no urgency. All movement is gone, and the figures are carefully arranged as if in a Roman bas-relief (Blunt, 1957, p. 166). The harsh diagonal from the Chatsworth picture is reduced to a more delicate one, which here does not serve “a solely dramatic purpose, but is a device used to develop the psychological progression” (Klein, 1937, p. 317) of the narrative. However, there is an almost hidden, and consequently often neglected, similarity with the Guercino. There is a low, overgrown and ancient sarcophagus on the right of the group, from the foliage of which a reptile, most likely a serpent, directs its gaze at the standing woman (Bernstock, 1986, p. 54), reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

The woman whom the snake looks at seems to be the most important figure in the painting. Unlike her Chatsworth predecessor, she is calm and contemplative, placed in the foreground and is completely dressed in robes of celestial colouring. Since it looks as if she is the only one of the figures who sees “the full import of their situation” (Steefel, 1975, p. 100), she has been described not only as a beautiful shepherdess or a priestess, but also as a personification of ratio and as the goddess Athena. Tracing a transformation from the skull in Guercino’s painting to that stately woman, Claude Lévi-Strauss argues that she is another, more refined, incarnation of memento mori, that she is the skull of Death (1993, p. 20), and J. E. Bernstock goes even further, proposing that she is Death itself (1986, p. 61).

Bernstock’s argument is persuasive. First, the word “death” is of feminine gender in both French and Italian. Second, there have been many female figures associated with Death: the Egyptian goddess Nūt; Ker was a female death-spirit in Greek mythology; Persephone was the queen of Hades; the Vanth was a benevolent Etruscan creature of the underworld, with the appearance of a dignified young woman; Boccaccio refers to Death as a woman; Saint Francis of Assisi wrote about Death, describing it as a virtuous and kind woman; and so on. Third, it is quite likely that the woman’s gesture – she has her hand on the shoulder of one of the shepherds – is the so-called mancipatio: a telling gesture of possession from Roman times, that was often used with the figure of Death in the iconography of the Dance Macabre, or the Dance of Death, in which Death takes its next victim by touching them on their shoulder (Bernstock, 1986, pp. 54-61). If this reading is correct, Poussin would be continuing “the medieval tradition of showing Death as a participant in the drama”, however, being a classicist, he could not use a skeleton and instead depicted it as an Etruscan Vanth, whose dignified nature is “much more compatible with the stoic conception of death to which Poussin subscribed” (Bernstock, 1986, p. 61).

Another subtle translation of the old, overtly morbid memento mori of the Guercino and the Chatsworth picture, can be found it the shadow of the kneeling shepherd, who is trying to read the inscription. Its graphic prominence and centrality in the composition makes it unlikely that it is a mere cast shadow (Steefel, 1975, p. 100). Many scholars have argued that it too is a symbol of death from the classical tradition, in which the underworld was the realm of “shades”, and shadows, rather than skeletons or gisants, were believed to represent the dead (Steefel, 1975, p. 100). A common assumption amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans was “that shades came back from their deep abodes to feed on the offerings made on their burial places” (Bernstock, 1986, p. 62). Moreover, the usage of shades was not isolated to pagan antiquity. French and Italian Renaissance and Baroque literature offer frequent appearances of the shade as a manifestation of the dead, most notably in the poetry of Joachim du Bellay and Ronsard, and, of course, in Dante’s Inferno (Bernstock, 1986, p. 62). In other words, the shadow on the tomb in Poussin’s second Et in Arcadia Ego is likely the shade of the one buried in that tomb (Bernstock, 1986, p. 62), who has appeared on the surface to warn the unenlightened young man of his inevitable expiry.

Opposite him is the other shepherd, who is pointing at something. This something may be the first shepherd or his shadow, however, many historians believe that he points at the inscription of the tomb. Heehs even goes so far as to say that he finds it hard “to imagine that someone looking at the painting … could conclude that the shepherd on the right … is pointing to the kneeling man” (Heehs, 1995, p. 219). Yet this seems to be wildly inaccurate. Lévi-Strauss retells an account about Poussin composing his paintings with the utmost deliberation (1993, p. 25) and, from the moment his style started to mature, he gave his figures precise gestures that explained their role in the composition (Blunt, 1957, p. 162). For example, in The Inspiration of the Poet (1629-1630, Louvre), Apollo clearly points at the sheets of paper that the poet is about to cover with his inspired writing; in The Death of Sapphira (1654, Louvre), Saint Peter clearly points at Sapphira, who dies suddenly after lying about money; in Sacrament of Ordination (1636-1640, Kimbell Art Museum), Christ clearly points up at Heaven, the gates of which open with the keys he is handing to Saint Peter; in The Annunciation (655-1657, National Gallery, London), the angel Gabriel points clearly at the dove (i.e. the Holy Spirit) above the Virgin with one hand and at her with the other. Furthermore, the shepherd from the Chatsworth Et in Arcadia Ego has his finger exactly over the inscription, as does the reading shepherd from the Louvre version. In other words, the painter has made it perfectly clear that they are focused on the words. This is not the case with the other shepherd. His finger is quite above the inscription and instead of pointing down at it, he points either at the face of the reading shepherd or his shadow. Maintaining that he points at the inscription is a distortion of the narrative of the picture that goes against Poussin’s unwavering, classicist precision.

The Louvre version of Et in Arcadia Ego is a supreme manifestation of Poussin’s ability to encode profound meaning in an attractive painterly surface. Like all great art, it is timeless in both its beauty and message, and those who can read its subtle, yet precise, signs are taken on a Stoic journey of facing their own finitude and seeking dignified ways of accepting it.


Bernstock. J. (1986) ‘Death in Poussin’s Second Et in Arcadia Ego’, Konsthistorisk tidskrift / Journal of Art History, 55(2), pp. 54-66.

Blunt, A. (1957) Art and Architecture in France: 1500 to 1700, Bungay: Penguin Books Ltd.

Blunt, A. (1938) ‘Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego’, The Art Bulletin, 20(1), pp. 96-100.

Friedländer, W. (1966) Nicolas Poussin: A New Approach, New York: Thames and Hudson.

Friedlaender, W. and Blunt, A. (1974) The Drawings of Nicolas Poussin: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 5, London: Studies of the Warburg Institute.

Gombrich, E. (1951) The Story of Art, New York: Phaidon Publishers INC.

Heehs, P. (1995) ‘Narrative Paintings and Narratives about Paintings: Poussin among the Philosphers’, Narrative, 3(3), pp. 211-231.

Klein, J. (1934) ‘An Analysis of Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia ego”’, The Art Bulletin, 1937, 19(2), pp. 314-317.

Steefel, L. D. (1975) ‘A Neglected Shadow in Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego’, The Art Bulletin, 57(1), pp. 99-101

Verdi, R. (1979) ‘On the Critical Fortunes – and Misfortunes – of Poussin’s “Arcadia”’, The Burlington Magazine, 121(911), pp. 95-107.

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