Et in Arcadia Ego (1637) by Nicolas Poussin
Interpretation of Baroque Mythological Painting

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Et in Arcadia Ego (1637)
Louvre, Paris.
By Nicolas Poussin.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Et in Arcadia Ego (1637)
The Arcadian Shepherds


Analysis of Et in Arcadia Ego
Philosophical Meaning
Geometrical Composition
Interpretation of Other Mythological Paintings


Name: Et in Arcadia Ego (Arcadian Shepherds) (1637)
Artist: Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: History painting
Movement: Baroque Art
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris

For the meaning of other celebrated masterpieces,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

Et in Arcadia Ego (1627)
Chatsworth, England.
By Nicolas Poussin.


The greatest of all French Baroque artists of the 17th century, Poussin spent most of his career in Rome, and was a leading figure in Baroque painting, being influenced in particular by Raphael (1483-1520) and Titian (c.1488-1576). One of his main patrons was Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), nephew of the Pope Urban VIII (reigned 1623–1644), and he was active within the city's cultural circles. As an artist he is famous for his classicism and his carefully composed mythological painting, modelled with rich, vibrant colour. He was responsible for some of Rome's best Baroque paintings, whose complex symbolism and architectural-like design made them hugely popular with Rome's intellectual and cultural elite. See, for instance, his dramatic classical masterpiece The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1634-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Analysis of Et in Arcadia Ego

Poussin painted two versions of Et in Arcadia Ego: the one in the Louvre and an earlier version, done in 1627, which is held at Chatsworth House, England. Also Poussin would have been familiar with the 1618-22 painting of the same theme by Guercino (1618–22, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome).

Et in Arcadia Ego was commissioned in 1638 by Giulio Rospigliosi, later Pope Clement IX (reigned: 1667-9) who, a few years before, had also commissioned Poussin's Dance to the Music of Time (1634-6, Wallace Collection). This complex work, in which Poussin attempts to deal with some difficult philosophical questions, illustrates his devotion to both the art of classical antiquity and figure painting, as well as his reflections on life and death.

The scene is set in an atmospheric landscape, known as Arcadia, where some shepherds have found a tomb. Arcadia is actually a barren, mountainous region of Greece, but through references made to it by the Roman poet Virgil (whose poems known as Eclogues, take place in Arcadia), it became idealized as a blissful pastoral paradise, and a symbol of perfect happiness.

NOTE: Along with Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Claude Lorrain (1600-82), Poussin was one of the earliest Old Masters to develop the genre of landscape painting, albeit in an idyllic Italianate style. See also: Classicism and Naturalism in 17th Century Italian Painting.



The crouching figure is tracing the letters chiselled into the stone, "Et in Arcadia Ego", usually translated as "even in Arcadia, I am there". Most art critics agree that the message on the stone has been left by Death, and the shepherds are coming to realize that this means that even in a blissful paradise like Arcadia there is death, and that life is not everlasting. (Making the picture a memento mori, or reminder of death.) The richly-dressed female figure already understands this truth, and she looks on sympathetically.

NOTE: For an alternative explanation, see Andre Felibien's biography of Poussin, in which he interpreted "Et in Arcadia Ego" to mean that the person buried in the tomb also once lived (enjoyed the pleasures of life) in Arcadia (on earth).

In addition, the action of the crouching shepherd is believed to be a reference to the origin of painting, believed to have occurred in the first tracing of a person's shadow on a wall. Perhaps Poussin wanted to convey that painting is one of the only ways to record a state of perfect happiness. It is possible that the red, yellow and blue robes of the two on the right might represent the primary colours of painting and be a sign of hope. At any rate, the painting seems to be saying that the discovery of art was the creative response of Man when he found out the shocking truth about the inevitability of his death.

From left to right, the figures grow in understanding. The two stooping shepherds pointing to the letters help us to focus on the central message of this work, while their knees and elbows balance each other. The woman, who could be an allegorical figure (representing the art of painting that is challenging death's claim to rule over Arcadia), looks like a figure from the classical past. Her face is in profile, recalling a Roman bust or statue, and her pose is as motionless as a marble sculpture.

Philosophical Meaning

Poussin's Louvre version is much more rational and carefully composed than his earlier painting at Chatsworth. The shepherds, for instance, are arranged in a meticulous and balanced pattern around the tomb. And there is less drama and more quiet contemplation. Also, unlike in earlier versions, such as Poussin's Chatsworth picture and the version by Guercino, there is no overt reference to death, such as the traditional skull. (See also: Vanitas painting which flourished in Holland at the time.) One possible reason for the quieter mood of the painting is that, over time, Poussin became a firm believer in Stoicism, which inspired many of his paintings. This ancient philosophy (subscribed to by many of the Roman intelligentsia of the day) held that the pursuit of material possessions was a futile quest; and that man should face his mortality with quiet resignation. The only bit of optimism in the picture concerns the value of art as a calm and rational response to the inevitability of death. Only art can recall images of loved ones who have died; only the power of art can soothe emotions, and express sentiments through visual beauty that cannot be expressed in words.

Geometrical Composition

Poussin often built up his compositions on geometric principles such as the "golden ratio". This term refers to the ideal proportion that is obtained by dividing a line so that the shorter part is to the longer as the longer is to the whole. Using geometry in this way to determine the layout of a painting, and its key elements, enhances the harmony and balance of the composition. Poussin's architectual design of his compositions was another feature that appealed to Rome's intellectual elite.

Interpretation of Other Mythological Paintings

Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-23) National Gallery, London.
By Titian.

Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-5) Prado, Madrid.
By Titian.

An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (1540-50) National Gallery, London.
By Bronzino.

Allegory of Divine Providence (1633-39) by Pietro da Cortona.
Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1688-94) by Andrea Pozzo.
Jesuit Church of Sant'Ignazio, Rome.

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus (1618) by Rubens.
Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Judgment of Paris (1632-5) by Rubens.
National Gallery, London.


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