Poussin and the Photographer

Death in Paradise–a terrifying thought. Surely there must be places from which death is banished. But one of the most famous paintings hanging in the Louvre is about shepherds, a cast shadow, and the presence of death in the pastoral landscape of Arcadia. Painted by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) in 1640*, the Louvre version of the theme of the presence of mortality in a place called “Arcadia” is very dramatic, presenting the intense scene of discovery. The three shepherds, who stand for innocence surprised, are overcome with the realization that Death is speaking through an inscription carved on a tomb, intoning, “Et in Arcadia Ego.” The enigmatic phrase, seen only in part, is usually translated as a warning and a revelation, “..even in Arcadia, I am there.” Death is everywhere and spares no one.

Et in Arcadia Ego, Les Bergers d’Arcadie (1640)

Three shepherds, wearing brightly colored togas, have paused (and posed) in a landscape of ancient Greece to examine a tomb unexpectedly looming before them. The sequence of the shepherds and their poses indicate, reading from left to right, a dawning realization of the significance of the warning carved in stone. The shepherd on the left bends over his companion, who has crouched before the tomb. This second shepherd casts a sickle-shaped shadow across the face of the slab and traces the carved words with his finger. The third shepherd, who is flanking the tomb on the right, has seen the inscription and has turned to a monumentally calm female figure. Clearly, she is of a different social class from the herders and possesses a knowledge that they have just discovered, and seems to be already aware of the inevitability of mortality. She places her hand comfortingly on the shoulder of the shepherd who turns to her beseechingly. This unnamed female is obviously an allegory but her meanings are still being debated. The narrative, frozen in time, is metaphorical of post-Paradise, post-Edenic conditions when post-lapsarian humans have realized that they will die, that their existence will end.

The theme of Poussin’s famous painting is deeply existential, suggesting that it is death and death alone that gives meaning to life, but there is another layer to the interpretation that attracted the attention of the contemporary photographer John Pfahl (1939-) and that is the idea of an Arcadia itself. Traveling across histories and cultures, the ideal of a memory space that holds the promise of a time when a perfect harmony between humans, the animals in their care, and nature itself, Arcadia is the beckoning lost dream. Arcadia for the Romans was the countryside, unspoiled, inhabited by equally unspoiled herders of domesticated animals and farmers tilling the soil. For the Romans, Arcadia existed in the past but also beckoned as a promise of the future and a return of a Golden Age. Here in Arcadia, humans lived simply and guilelessly, free of the cynicism and sophistication of an urban existence. It is no accident that Arcadia emerged on the eve of Rome becoming an empire and of the city itself becoming an urban destination teeming with jostling people. Green space was diminished, trees were supplanted by insula, and lakes and ponds by public fountains. The world had become an artifice, removed from authenticity and from nature itself. What happens to the cultural consciousness when the refuge that is Arcadia is lost? when the hope that is Arcadia has been wiped away? If death can exist in Arcadia, what does it do to an ideal that has itself died at the hands of humans? The photographer does not necessarily answer the profound question of the loss of a dream but he shows what this loss looked like in1980s America. Arcadia is no more.

John Pfahl. Arcadia Revisited: Niagara River and Falls from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (1988)

In her article “Supranational Utopia: Virgil’s Arcadia,” Magda El-Nowieemy, discussed the origin of the idea of a golden age from the Roman past, a pastoral era that preceded cities like Rome. This Roman folk tale reached poetic immortality through the famous Eclogue 4 by the Roman poet of the Augustan age, Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro). The Eclogues and Georgics by Virgil took a rather literal longing for a more peaceful way of life and elevated the idea of Arcadia. As the author wrote, “As a classical writer, and as one of the most distinguished utopian writers of classical Rome, Virgil aspires to transcend national boundaries to a certain utopian place in Greece, to Arcadia, where one can live a life of innocence, simplicity, and closeness to nature. Arcadia is transformed by Virgil (70-19 BCE) into more than a utopia, Arcadia has become rather like a mirage pursued throughout space and time. While Virgil was a sophisticated Roman citizen writing for a nostalgic literature, his audience had just entered into an age of empire and could sense that the atmosphere had changed. As El-Nowieemy noted, “The Eclogues are a collection of comparatively short pastoral poems, published in 39 BC and are largely representative of their period They were composed in a tumultuous context of Roman history, during the Civil Wars, and in the years following the assassination of Julius Caesar. In such a context, the Eclogues were considered an escapist poetry, an escape from reality into art.”

Nicolas Poussin. Arcadian Shepherds (1627) Chatsworth House Version

Consider that in the eighteenth century, this legend would have had special meaning in Europe. England and France were following Spain and Portugal in the quest for Empire and classical literature was part of the revival of Roman and classical forms in architecture, and it will be possible to see how the ideal was transferred to America. Virgil was almost required reading for privileged people educated in the classics and his vision of Arcadia had been shifted from its origin in ancient Greece to the new locale of early America. Here was a pristine corner of the world where nature reigned supreme, which Shakespeare referred to as “O brave new world that has such people in it!”  For the American President, Thomas Jefferson, this new world needed to be a rural and agrarian one, modeled in part upon Virgil’s Arcadia. In the book, Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream, by M. Andrew Holowchak wrote, “Jefferson was a true child of the Enlightenment. Schooled well in the notion of scientific, political, and moral progress–he was constantly in the habit of seeing the world as it might be. Yet he was no pie-eyed idealist, without footing in reality. Jefferson had a distinct vision of American well-being. That vision is best delineated not by the epithet ‘utopia,’ but ‘Arcadia,’ characterizing austere and peaceful pastoralism..Jefferson says, ‘I think we shall be (virtuous), as long as agriculture is our principal object, which will be the case, while there remain vacant lands in any part of America. When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe, and go to eating one another as they do there.”

American Farm: Plan (1793)

But what was this “Arcadia” upon which Jefferson based his rural dream of America? If the idea of Arcadia that Americans inherited from the British was handed down from Virgil, how did the poet himself describe “Arcadia?” In reading the Fourth Eclogue, it becomes clear that “Arcadia” was both a place and a social and psychological condition. Virgil promised a new golden age that would begin with the birth of a boy, writing through which will emerge a restoration of an earlier time at the opening of the stanza:

“Now is come the last age of the Cumaean prophecy: the great cycle of periods is born anew. Now returns the Maid, returns the reign of Saturn: now from high heaven a new generation comes down. Yet do thou at that boy’s birth, in whom the iron race shall begin to cease, and the golden to arise over all the world, holy Lucina, be gracious; now thine own Apollo reigns. And in thy consulate, in thine, O Pollio, shall this glorious age enter, and the great months begin their march: under thy rule what traces of our guilt yet remain, vanishing shall free earth for ever from alarm. He shall grow in the life of gods, and shall see gods and heroes mingled, and himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world that his fathers’ virtues have set at peace. But on thee, O boy, untilled shall Earth first pour childish gifts, wandering ivy-tendrils and foxglove, and colocasia mingled with the laughing acanthus: untended shall the she-goats bring home their milk-swoln udders, nor shall huge lions alarm the herds: unbidden thy cradle shall break into wooing blossom. The snake too shall die, and die the treacherous poison-plant: Assyrian spice shall grow all up and down. But when once thou shalt be able now to read the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, and to know Virtue as she is, slowly the plain shall grow golden with the soft corn-spike, and the reddening grape trail from the wild briar, and hard oaks shall drip dew of honey.”

In Jefferson’s time, very early in the nineteenth century, the shadow of industrialization already loomed. One can read in his letter to James Madison that, in his mind, the hope for salvation or Arcadia could be found only in untouched lands, unsullied by the taint of urbanization, and blessed with the ministrations of farmers. This pastoral ideal of what  Holowchak described as one of “self-sufficiency, plentitude, and consanguinity with nature and was labor of unquestioned utility.” In writing to Benjamin Austin, Jefferson compared manufacture, or what we now understand to be the industrialization of the northeast, as “dependent” upon consumerism. The “sterility” of manufacture is in contrast to the independence of farming or the kind of “husbandry” with is “cornucopian,” meaning that nature repays labor ten fold. In his famous book, The Machine in the Garden. Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, the author opens his theme by writing, “The pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery, and it has not yet lost its hold upon the native imagination. The reason is clear enough.The ruling motive of the good shepherd, leading figure of the classic, Virgilian mode, was to withdraw from the great world and begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape. And now here was a virgin continent! inevitably the European mind was dazzled by the prospect. With an unspoiled hemisphere in view, it seemed that mankind actually might realize what had been a poetic fantasy. Soon the dream of a retreat to an oasis of harmony and joy was removed from its traditional literary context. It was embodied in various schemes for making America the site of a new beginning for Western society.”

Thomas Cole. Dream of Arcadia (1838)

But when the photographer John Phafl revisited the Jeffersonian Arcadia, he did not journey to farm country of soft corn spikes or dripping honey. Instead, he walked the paths of industrialization and recorded a territory that has become separated from nature and from all that is natural. The photographer noted that the landscapes of the eighteenth century, divided into the picturesque and the sublime, just as Jefferson created a dialectic between manufacture and the pastoral, had to be reconsidered in contemporary terms. Leaving the picturesque to other photographers, Phafl sought the sublime, but this sublime is what is termed the “industrial sublime” or sometimes the “technological sublime.” As early as 1980, he began recording the toll the mastery of nature in the name of progress had taken on Jefferson’s Arcadia, in his series, Power Places (1980-84) Next his journey In 1988, took him to the historical heart of all that Jefferson feared, industrialization; and yet, this is the kind of industry that is not sterile but cornucopian. Phafl turned his camera towards the kind of industry or manufacture that used nature to produce power. But, as Jefferson would have pointed out, the power is then transformed into a witch’s brew that fuels cities and makes industrialization possible. His photographic essay, Arcadia Revisited: Niagara River and Falls from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, is a vision of nature that is always in his time “altered,” as he termed it. The altering is by the human hand a labor of a slow and steady remaking of nature to human needs and even to the danger and detriment of the contemporary society that has so proudly mastered nature. The themes of loss and transformation and the threat of death appeared in the photographer’s investigation of the industry along the Niagara River, and his exploration of nuclear power plants in America, a place that had once been a possible Arcadia.

*The date, as decreed by the Louvre’s Pierre Rosenberg, is generally accepted today.

The next two essays will discuss Phafl’s twin studies of what Leo Marx termed “the machine in the garden,” referring to Arcadia, Jefferson’s pastoral ideal and, of course to Eden itself.



If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

Get in Touch!

1 + 10 =