The Power of Sight: A Reexamination of Guercino and Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego Paintings In Light of Early Modern Vision Theory Open Access

Hafer, Abbey (Spring 2020)

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This paper works to expand the interpretation of Guercino and Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego paintings provided by Erwin Panofsky in his seminal 1936 essay, focusing on the themes of sight and the production of knowledge through visual observation. When the discussion surrounding these paintings is enlarged to acknowledge the artists’ engagement with visual observation and optical theory, the key role of vision in the contemplative process depicted in and stimulated by these works becomes clear. This paper begins with an examination of Guercino’s c. 1618 Et in Arcadia Ego painting, in which the shepherds are engaged in the act of seeing and contemplating the symbols of death arranged before them. The presence of sight as a means of knowledge production within this painting suggests that the artist developed an interest in sight early in his career. With this interest established, the paper will then shift to focus on works produced during Guercino’s years in Rome, considering his Roman experience as it informs his lesser-known Memento Mori (c. 1622-23) and other works. Finally, the paper turns to Poussin’s paintings of the Et in Arcadia Ego theme, concluding with a discussion of the artist’s established interest in optics and how elements of contemporary optical theory inform the portrayal of sight in these works. The author situates these artists and their pictures within the transformative climate of scientific investigation that they were exposed to in Rome in the first decades of the seventeenth century. In the memento mori paintings discussed here, a crucial relationship between death, sight, and knowledge is forged. To begin to understand death we must look. Close visual attention and ruminating on the part of the beholder are rewarded with knowledge, with a deeper understanding of the concept of death/mortality as it relates to the body and soul of the beholder. 

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