(also known as Les bergers d’Arcadie or The Arcadian Shepherds)
Richelieu wing – 2nd floor – The French Caravagges – Room 11
At the edge of a country lane stands a tumultuous stone that reminds the passerby that a dead person is lying there. Shepherds, men who are rough and of little culture, stop at the monument they consider intriguing. One of them, kneeling, his hand extended towards the funeral inscription, tries to decipher it. Painfully, he spells the words: Et in Arcadia ego. He who sleeps under this stone remembers the living; he was a citizen of that fertile Arcadia, with an eternally blue sky whose eyes forever closed will never see again. This call from beyond the tomb seems to awaken thoughts in the simple soul of the peasants grouped before the stone; their faces reflect an obvious melancholy and that sort of solemn terror that provokes in all beings the vision of the inevitable expiry. While one, standing, leaning on the monument, attentively listens to the one who reads, another leaning on his knee, turns to a young woman and explains to him the mysterious meaning of the epitaph.
From this canvas emerges a serene philosophy, a little sad but which gives it an inestimable moral value. All the works of Poussin carry with them a teaching; at home, the joy of painting is always accompanied by the expression of a feeling. The noble and austere artist never seeks the effect: the one he produces for sure comes above all from that elevation of thought which forces one to stop at one’s work, to reflect and one is immediately conquered because the reflections that he suggests are offered to us with an admirable art, penetrating, full of attraction.
Not that Poussin can be counted among the virtuosos of the brush, nor that he ever gives himself to sparkling artificial colors. His manner is balanced as his mind, his color is calm, discreet, but of unparalleled harmony; his design never deviates from the classical correction, it is full of nobility and sincerity. With these somewhat severe gifts, another painter would have fallen into monotony, but, by a rare grace of state, Poussin remains attractive, pleasant, and profoundly human. The beautiful outline of its characters is the envelope of beautiful souls, and it is sincerity that one reads on their faces with pure and quiet lines.
No one knew how Poussin approached the ancient ideal. And yet his means of expression were very poor, compared to those we have today. In the seventeenth century, we knew almost everything about antiquity. The few documents that drew the painters were scattered ruins in Rome or in the surrounding countryside. From Greece, from Egypt, nothing was known, and Poussin, despite his studies, possessed only a very superficial erudition. But what he did not know, his instinct as an artist made him guess, he was impregnated with the pagan atmosphere that floats, despite everything, on the Eternal City, and if, sometimes, his landscapes are inaccurate and his characters anachronistic , the atmosphere and the design are really ancient.
But Poussin was not only a wonderful evocator; he counts among the technicians of the painting destined to shine eternally. Less by an effect of inspiration than by force of constancy and toil, he rose, as a draftsman and painter, to the highest peaks of art. See Et in Arcadia ego: what admirable harmony of composition, what harmony in the whole, what charm in detail, and above all what nobility in execution! Where to find a more beautiful and harmonious creation, a more admirable purity of lines than in the woman posed standing beside the shepherds! What truth in the attitude and what richness, contained and dull, in the color of the draperies! And if, leaving the group, we cast our eyes on the landscape that surrounds it, we must admit that few painters have given so much fluidity to the skies, as much vibrant heat to the light; all the plans are arranged with infinite art, and Poussin would have been a marvelous landscape painter had he not been better than that.
Although he spent most of his life in Rome, Poussin always remained French of heart and temperament and France can be proud of him because he is one of the artists who has most honored the painting.
Et in Arcadia ego was in 1710 in the small apartment of King Louis XIV, in the Louvre Palace. There is a repetition in the Duke of Devonshire’s collection.
Height: 0.85 – Width: 1.21 – Figures: 0.58.