Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), one of the most remarkable French ‘Classical’ painter, sculptor, and drafter of the seventeenth century, showed an immense forte at carving ‘Historic Paintings.’ Even today, he is renowned the world over for his dramatic and colorful presentation of scenes from history, Bible, and popular French mythologies. His most famous painting “Les Bergers d’Arcadie (The Arcadian Shepherds)” (1637-38) has been an artistic arch for artists, globally. The painting readily portrays the theme of ‘Death in Arcadia,’ with a group of shepherds pondering over the presence of a strange tomb, with a deadly message inscribed on it.
In “Les Bergers d’Arcadie,” Nicolas evokes a sense of pastoral tradition that had taken birth in the times of epic writing by the ‘Classical Greeks.’ The painting depicts three shepherds along with a charming shepherdess, bearing an expression of shock due to the alarming message on the tomb. Poussin has shown the shepherds as leaning forward considerably to confront the announcement of their fearsome discovery. Contrary to the reactions of shepherds in the painting, the shepherdess is shown standing erect with composure. Elegant proportions, smooth brow, fine nose, the shepherdess truly manifests the ideal and the classical.
Measuring 121 cm X 185 cm (47.6″ x 72.8″), Nicolas’ painting is currently displayed at Musée du Louvre, Paris. The most popular interpretation of the title “Les Bergers d’Arcadie (Shepherds in Arcadia)” has the strong undertones of death prevalent in Arcadia. According to another interpretation however, the picture represents that the person buried enjoyed the immense pleasures life offered. Accordingly, the artist William Hazlitt believes that the title signifies “I was also in Arcadia,” with the painting depicting a group of carefree shepherds wandering in the morning of a beautiful spring when they are diverted by a strange tomb bearing the very inscription, “I was also in Arcadia.” Overall, a sense of ambiguity still persists in the interpretation of the picture.
Nicolas Poussin produced several versions of the painting. It is largely believed that the first version of the oil on canvass painting, “Les Bergers d’Arcadie,” is a rework of Geurcino’s version. This version depicts the shepherds in active conversation over the half-hidden tomb bearing a strange engraving. While all the shepherds have curious expressions on their faces, the shepherdess is dressed in attire that is rather more inviting and posing in a suggestive fashion. The second version of Poussin’s painting however, depicts the shepherdess in a more austere fashion. The later version has more shepherd figures in pondering and contemplative moods.