death exists in Arcadia. The young shepherds have just discovered the tombstone with the inscription that translates
as “Even in Arcadia, I am.” “I” surely refers to Death itself, which may be personified in the stately woman who
mysteriously rests her hand on one shepherd’s shoulder.
Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1655.
The moral seems clear: no one, no matter how young or how fortunate they may be, can escape death. Poussin
presented the story clearly, with the four main characters forming a compact group in the center. The composition
is balanced, not only within the central group, but also in the landscape, where the trees seem to echo the shapes
of the figures in the foreground. Poussin did not avoid color, but color is more localized. For example, the two parts
of the female figure’s drapery are completely separate areas of gold and blue. And in these sorts of grave history
paintings, he avoided the exuberant, swirling compositions and the free brushwork of Rubens in order to emphasize
clear, ideal forms.
Although history painting was considered the highest form of art and the form most suitable for conveying moral or
political messages, the academy did provide support to artists who worked in other genres. Poussin himself painted
many landscapes, which were as orderly and idealized as his history paintings. This type of landscape is called a
classical landscape, which presents a scene with evidence of human activity (often a classical temple) framed by
trees or other landscape forms that are carefully balanced. The foreground, middle ground, and background are
made from overlapping wedges, rather like stage scenery. The weather is always serene, and most importantly, the
landscape is the setting for a moralistic story. The story may be drawn from the Bible (as in Poussin’s Landscape
with Saint John on Patmos), from mythology, or from history, but the classical landscape is simply not complete
without the presence of human activity. Many other artists created classical landscapes in the seventeenth century,
including the French painter Claude Lorraine, who specialized in glowing harbor scenes, and the Italian painter
Annibale Carracci.
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