'Et in Arcadia ego', 1637-1639
Oil on canvas, 72.83 x 47.64 inches [185 x 121 cm]
Musee du Louvre, Paris
'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 of 'Et in Arcadia ego' by Poussin 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.