Among believers in sacred geometry and conspiricists of themes such as in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code full of taboo religious beliefs and saucy secret-society stories, the artist Nicolas Poussin holds a special status as having been rumored to hold important secret truths, especially with respect to his famous painting The Arcadian Shepherds, sometimes called Et in Arcadia Ego.
Nicolas Poussin, The Arcadian Shepherds (1638-40) Location: Musée du Louvre
If you google this painting, you’ll find hundreds and hundreds of hits with diagrams of pentagrams and other devices laid over the painting, as if to demonstrate arcane uses of secret traditions.
The phrase Et in Arcadia Ego means “Even in Arcadia am I” which is a reference to the words of the spectre of Death, who persists even in places of great pleasures (a translation attributed to well-known historian Irwin Panofsky in Tony Green’s texts). The shepherds appear to be inspecting and decoding the text, and are perhaps telling it to the woman, or maybe she is telling them what it means. This painting is one of many straightforward, perhaps a bit silly morality tales that Poussin created using the ideas and costumry of ancient stories. Did Poussin convey special geometric secrets hidden from the public, but demonstrated to the elite, informed viewer?
Sadly the answer is a firm no. Poussin did not rely on geometry to layout and compose his paintings in a flat, diagrammatic way.
Author and art historian Martin Kemp responds to the conspiracy theories this way (in the BBC’s Timewatch: The History of a Mystery, 1996):
“If we look at a picture like ‘The Arcadian Shepherds’ by Poussin it’s easy to find what you’re looking for in terms of geometry. I think the really important point from the standpoint of an art historian like myself is that we have hundreds and hundreds of drawing by Poussin — thousands and thousands including his contemporaries — now, not in one of those is there any evidence of a geometrical armature, of angles, of precise proportions being laid down, either at the deeper level or at the top level. It’s not there”
(a video of the show is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXB3mfHeFIM timestamp 29:29 )
And indeed for years, as an artist, I’ve viewed Poussin’s many fine drawings, and agree with Kemp’s view: none reveal any working out of strict geometries, and in fact they barely contain any lines or hints of geometric musings at all.
I think they look rather geometric for a variety of reasons: the human figure is symmetrical so if you group figures together, your painting will result in repeated symmetries; the use of 3d linear perspective is geometric and its vanishing points and diagonals can easily be misunderstood for the conspiracist’s belief in the use of 2d “sacred geometry”; people forget that Poussin had a sense of humor and in so doing, take his paintings far too seriously such that they begin to believe every element must contain special meanings… sometimes a brushstroke is just a brushstroke.
Most of Poussin’s studies are very fluid, fast, precise arrangements of light and shadow skittering across the forms of human figures, architecture, and landscape. In Poussin’s methods, composition is driven by the deep studying genius of the artist, not by any rigid geometrical presuppositions.
So how then did Poussin compose his paintings? We know from many art historical studies of Poussin’s statements almost exactly how he managed to develop his ideas into workable images that then became paintings. We know how he composed. The process was lively and exploratory.
This is Poussin’s working method, as described by historian Anthony Blunt ( The Drawings of Poussin Yale:1979; Nicolas Poussin: A.W. Mellon Lectures, 1958; Art & Architecture in France 1500-1700 Yale:1999) on the basis of Poussin’s letters and notes; to make a painting in Poussin’s method, working from idea through sketches (pensée) to the finished painting, do this:
- Read everything there is to know about the subject that you’ve chosen. This was Poussin’s preferred habit.
- Create rough sketches to clarify and play with rough ideas of how to represent the story of your subject, from your own imagination.
- Make many more further sketches, changing your mind and imagery as needed.
- Build 9″ tall wax figures of every character in the story, dressed in fine linens, and then arranged on a small stage with a gridded floor, variable lighting, and room for a painted backdrop to fill out the scene.
- Arrange, light, rearrange, sketch from and draw the scene until the entire clair-obscur (the overal light-dark structure) is satisfactorily dramatic, until the entire disposition is complete.
- Complete further studies from form and nature so that every figure’s composition is believable in the story; the development of a theatric tableau that is highly visual and memorable.
And then of course construct the finished painting on the basis of all of the sketches, inventions, observations from the staged models, and nature studies. This method is fluid, robust, and able to be intensely prolific: indeed today we still have access to hundreds of pensée from Poussin. Insofar as Poussin loved to read about his subject matter, we can also characterize his working method as literary, or mythopoeic. Poussin’s sketches are full of wet and dry ink wash brush strokes, occasional charcoal marks and ink hatchmarks, and firm clarity of figure-ground light and dark patterns melting into one another, the clair-obscur (chiaroscuro):
Moses Striking the Rock, 19 x 26cm, Collection of the Academy of Arts, Petrograd.[public domain image]
It’s not too difficult to imagine how this kind of drawing resulted from step 4, Poussin’s use of a miniature stage set of wax figurines. The device he used, called the grande machine, was known to his biographers and other arts writers of the time: Le Blonde de la Tou, Bellori, Sandrart, even Rogier de Piles mentions Du Fresnoy’s recommendation from De Arte Graphica that artists ought to sometimes rely on maquettes and models. A good discussion of this can be found in Batschmann’s Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting, of which I made this snapshot:
Batschmann noted that the grande machine’s tableau of figures enabled the painter to “grasp and control the problems of complex relations of disposition, lighting and color.” (Batschmann, p. 29)
Of this I have no doubt: as a painter, my experience is that it’s always easier and more efficient and more fruitful to work from observation whenever creating new representational imagery. Being able to look at props, models, or still lives lets your eyes and mind do a lot of the work of editing, and you can see your way through the many hundreds of visual compromises needed to create a compelling painting. Poussin’s method is that the artist draws, paints, edits, refines, draws and draws and more — arriving at a composition rather than building one out of a preconceived mathematical form.
If there is a great secret to Et in Arcadia Ego, you could just say the secret this way, in the concise words of poet Charles Bernstein: “Poussin did not eat baloney.”
For Further Reading
Oskar Batschmann, Nicolas Poussin: Dialectics of Painting Reaktion Books: 1999
Charles Bernstein, Rough Trades, Sun & Moon Press: 1991
Anthony Blunt The Drawings of Poussin Yale:1979
Anthony Blunt Nicolas Poussin: A.W. Mellon Lectures, 1958
Anthony Blunt Art & Architecture in France 1500-1700 Yale:1999
ed. by Stefan Germer Vies de Poussin 1994 note: contains the early biographies of Poussin by Bellori, Felibien, Passeri, and Sandrart all in one book.
Ernst Gombrich, Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, National Gallery London:1995
Tony Green “A Shadow in Arcadia: Poussin’s Painting in the Louvre” in The Reader in the Text, ed. by S. Suleiman and I/ Crossman, 1980
Tony Green Poussin’s Humor, Paravail: 2009
Thomas Puttfarken The Discovery of Pictorial Composition: Theories of Visual Order in Painting 1400-1800, Yale: 2000 note: this is the best in-depth read on the changing idea of composition.
ed. by Katie Scott and Guinevere Warwick Commemorating Poussin: Reception and Interpretation of the Artist. Cambridge University Press: 1999
Jacques Thuilleri Nicolas Poussin 1994