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The Shepherds of Arcadia

CAT 142 Nicholas Poussin Shepherds of Arcadia BA 295.jpg

CAT 142. F. F. Walker after Nicolas Poussin. The Shepherds of Arcadia. From the Picture in the Gallery of the Louvre, also known as Et In Arcadia Ego, early 1640s. Engraved for S. C. Hall’s Gems of European Art, 1846. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Poussin painted his first Shepherds of Arcadia around 1630. In that version, the young pastoral folk come upon the tomb by surprise, not at all with the meditative severity that was to make this second version, painted at least a decade later, one of Poussin’s most celebrated paintings. This second version gives primacy to the words, ET IN ARCADIO EGO, cut into the stone. As the elder shepherd points to the words on the tomb and perhaps speaks of who is buried there, his younger companions listen with sympathetic engagement. The commentator in the 1846 Gems of European Art in which the Walker engraving collected by Melville appeared credits Poussin with great “originality of thought” in departing from those predecessors who had imagined the “perpetual joys of Arcadia” to show that “Death was everywhere present, as the inevitable lot of humanity” (Hall 81).

Most authorities date the painting to the early 1640s (although the maturity of both its concept and execution caused Blunt to propose a date of 1655). Whenever it was painted, it was acquired by King Louis XIV of France in 1685. One measure of its great popularity in the eighteenth century was the poem by George Keate, The Monument in Arcadia, published in 1775 (Blunt 81). In 1846 the Gems of European Art could rightly declare that “the original picture is one of the most valued acquisitions of the Louvre” (Hall 82; see fig. 1 below). Walker’s engraving in steel preserves all of the classical clarity of Poussin’s original—especially in the facial profile of the female shepherdess and in the legibility of the letters cut in stone. One effect is perhaps sharper in the black-and-white of the engraving than in the original painting: the stark shadow of the speaking man upon the incised stone, visually deepening the pictorial theme.

CAT 142 fig 1 Poussin Et_in_Arcadia_ego_Louvre Wikipedia.jpg

Figure 1. Nicolas Poussin. Et in Arcadia Ego, oil on canvas, early 1640s. The Louvre, Paris.

The terse concision of the words cut into the stone (literally, “I am in Arcadia”) has led to much speculation as to what Poussin meant by the inscription and to whom it is addressed. Cropper and Dempsey celebrate the fact that “in the end the meaning of the inscription on the tomb remains indeterminate. . . . It refers to no person or action and . . . its very indeterminacy is in fact at the core of Poussin’s meaning. The viewer—ego—joins the small band of shepherds gathered around the tomb, and shares in their perplexity. As they contemplate the tomb I too contemplate the tomb, but also the painting of it, in which I read the mysterious inscription. And so the circle of reference widens: Et in Arcadia ego—is it the tomb that speaks, or its inhabitant?—is it the painting that speaker, or is it the painter?—is it the reading spectator that speaks, or is it I?” (311-12). 

The literary spectator of the “Doubloon” chapter of Moby-Dick experiences a similar indeterminancy as one sailor after another steps up to interpret the coin that Ahab has nailed to the mast. So does the literary spectator of Clarel as one pilgrim after another internalizes his own interpretation of the palm of Mar Saba. These pilgrims in the gorge of Kedron, like Poussin’s shepherds on a hill in Arcady, enact Melville’s most poignant meditation on the fragility, yet beauty, of life, in the face of a stony fate (NN C 3.26-30). In Melville’s print collection, the poignant fragility of this tenacious religious outpost, perched on a ledge above the gorge of Kedron, is unforgettably pictured the sharply incised lines of S. Bradshaw’s 1838 engraving after Thomas Allom’s Monastery of Santa Saba (CAT 19; fig. 2 below):

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Figure 2. Melville’s copy of S. Bradshaw’s steel engraving of Thomas Allom’s The Monastery of Santa Saba, 1838 (our CAT 19). Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The ability of one palm tree to survive, within the terraced stage-set of this stony declivity, is conveyed in the soft pen-and-wash drawing of The Holy Palm of Mar Saba that the artist Peter Toft created in 1882⁠—one decade after Melville published, and pulped, the epic poem about his own pilgrimage through the Holy Land, and the gorge of Kedron, in 1857 (fig. 3; see also the discussion in CAT 184):

CAT 142 fig 3 Peter Toft Holy Palm Mar Saba Palestine BA 291 B.jpg

Fig. 3. Peter Toft. The Holy Palm of Mar Saba, pen and brush on paper, 1886.  Personal gift to Herman Melville in 1886. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The Holy Palm growing in the stony gorge of Kedron, no less than the incised lines on the tombstone in The Shepherds of Arcadia, can say Et in [Kedron] Ego. Each gives pictorial expression to Rosenberg’s Poussinian vision of “the symbiosis between humans, with their dramas, and an atemporal nature, heedless of and insensible to the everyday and the present” (Rosenberg and Christiansen 118).

Melville’s copy of Walker’s engraving of The Shepherds of Arcadia, like his copy of Woollett’s engraving of The Enchanted Castle, is “silvery” in texture and tone. It too is mounted in a golden, oaken frame. The two works share a meditative mood in which Claude and Poussin truly “meet and mate.” One can imagine Poussin’s erect shepherdess becoming, a decade or two later, Claude’s seated Psyche. These two paintings in matching frames were doubtless among the “silvery prints after Poussin and Claude” that Frank Mather saw in Elizabeth Shaw Melville’s 18th Street apartment (Mather, 555-56).