In a famous essay entitled “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition”, the art historian and philosopher of art Erwin Panofsky takes in exam the influences of the influencing Latin motto “Et in Arcadia Ego” in the history of art. In particular, the essay of Panofsky is centered on the figure of the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) and his influencing painting “Les Bergers d’Arcadie".

The Latin sentence itself is a sort of recurring Motto in Latin literature:

The first appearance of a tomb with a memorial inscription (to Daphnis) amid the idyllic settings of Arcadia appears in Virgil’s Eclogues V 42 ff. Virgil took the idealized Sicilian rustics that had first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritusand set them in the primitive Greek district of Arcadia (see Eclogues VII and X). The idea was taken up anew in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici in the 1460s and 1470s, during the Florentine Renaissance

Taken by Wikipedia, voice “Et in Arcadia Ego”

In the history of visual art, we encounter the this theme in a painting by Guercino:

Quite surprisingly, Panofsy in his essay takes into consideration, as first insight, one of the latest interpretation of the theme, due to the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds:

Reynolds explained the presence of the Latin sentence as a sort of memento of the ineluctability of death. He also reported that even  King George III who had seen the painting said, "ay, ay, death is even in Arcadia."

The point here gives to Panofsky the opportunity to clarify the meaning and interpretation of “Arcadia”:

in the imagination of Virgil, and of Virgil alone, that the concept of Arcady, as we know it, was born— a bleak and chilly district of Greece came to be transfigured into an imaginary realm of perfect bliss. But no sooner had this new, Utopian Arcady come into being than a discrepancy was felt between the supernatural perfection of an imaginary environment and the natural limitations of human life as it is.

Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego & the Elegiac Tradition”

The literary and allegoric myth usually associated with Arcadia depicted the simple mannered delights of “Arcady”, a dreaming folk is seeking to retreat from the pressures and complexities of urban life, in a pastoral country. Likewise, her warriors were seen as wild and uncouth highlanders who would rush headlong into battle wearing only the skin of wolves, bears or sheep (Paus. 4.11.3, cf. 8.1.5). Polybios, himself an Arcadian, calls his fellow countrymen “primitive” (4.21.2), while Strabon, a non-Arcadian, describes them as “wholly mountaineers” (8.1.2). Although this simplicity of the Arcadian character was to be idealised by Roman poets, the Arcadians did not possess an equal reputation for intelligence. Juvenal calls a blockhead an “Arcadian youth” (7.160), and even as late as the third century AD we witness Philostratos describing the Arcadians as “the most boorish of men” who lived in “squalor” (VA 8.7.12).

Contrasting to this, somewhat distorted, literary description of Arcadia, the presence of a grave and, then , of Death. Again Panofsky:

The phrase Et in Arcadia ego can still be understood to be voiced by Death personified, and can still be translated as "even in Arcady I, Death hold sway," without being out of harmony with what is visible in the painting itself.

Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego & the Elegiac Tradition”

Death is everywhere, and mortality a condition which affected also the most naive shepards of Arcadia:

Thus Poussin himself, while making no verbal change in the inscription, invites, almost compels, the beholder to mis-translate it by relating the ego to a dead person instead of to the tomb, by connecting the et with ego instead of with Arcadia, and by supplying the missing verb in the form of avixi or fui instead of a sum. The development of his pictorial vision had outgrown the significance of the literary formula, and we may say that those who under the impact of the Louvre picture, decided to render the phrase Et in Arcadia ego as "I, too, lived in Arcady," rather than as "Even in Arcady, there am I," did violence to Latin grammar but justice to the new meaning of Poussin’s composition. Poussin’s Louvre picture no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality. We are confronted with a change from thinly veiled moralism to undisguised elegiac sentiment.

Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego & the Elegiac Tradition”

The illustration of Aubrey Beardsley for the third volume of “Savoy” contrasts totally with the Poussin’s view of Arcadia. Here, the vision and concept itself of Arcadia, as described by Panofsky, is completely superseded. The Beardsley’s Arcadia has nothing in common with the retired and pastoral environment of the literal common place. Here Arcadia looks just like an English garden, in which strange and exotic flowers are presents, in which a dandy gentleman can walk as in an aesthetic Wunderkammer. It could be the garden of a Des Esseintes or, ante litteram, the Garda Lake’s residence of Gabriele D’Annunzio. This is definitively not the field of a sort of quite Eden on Earth, rather the decadent aesthetic and exotic beauty of a Villa’s Garden.

The dandy gentleman depicted here, is not facing the grave with the astonished and dreaming attitude of the Poussin’s shepards; here the dandy, who believes in the Total Work of Art, looks like he faces the Death represented by the grave challenging her, without necessarily being frightened nor surprised by the grave’s presence in his Garden. And he is not driven by a fool braveness, rather than the aesthetic and decadent belief on Beauty, she who will win everything, including Death.

Other visual artists who worked on the same subject include:

Giovanni Francesco Barbierini detto il Guercino (1591-1666)
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)
Laurent de la Hyre (1606-1656)
Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781)
Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-1788)
Richard Wilson (1714-1782)
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)
Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806)
Léon Vaudoyer (1803-1872)
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)
George Wilhelm Kolbe (1877-1947)
Augustus John (1878-1961)

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