Tag Archives: The Spirit of the Dead Watching

Et in arcadia ego: Guercino and Gauguin – 700th Post!

14 Apr

Paul Gauguin, Spirit of the Dead Watching, 1892

Paul Gauguin’s painting “Spirit of the Dead Watching” and Guercino’s painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” have much more in common than one might assume at first sight. Guercino’s painting is a strange mix of the pastoral idyll and the dark motif of memento mori. The dark and foreboding spirit of the Baroque is seeping its darkness into the Arcadian landscapes of Giorgione. Two shepherds are seen gazing at a skull placed on a cippus. A little mouse is seen next to a skull and under it we see the words which also give the painting its enigmatic title “Et in arcadia ego” which means “Even in paradise I am”. The skull is a harrowing, spooky sight and its presence in the calm greenery of nature disturbs the peacefulness. The face expressions of the shepherds reveal their feelings; their easy going attitude was tainted by the sight of the skull which brings thoughts of transience and decay which is inevitable for all that is alive; a flower withers and so will the man. Even visually the composition is divided between the shepherds on one side and the skull on the other and between them is a thin line which they don’t want to cross, as if coming nearer to the skull will somehow taint their carefree existence.

In Gauguin’s painting a lush female nude and warm, vibrant pinks and purples serve as a cheerful facade for the dreary existential motif that lies underneath. The girl’s youthful, sensual body is contrasted with Tupau, the spirit of the dead, which is lurking from the background dressed in a black cloak. The girl can feel its presence and she feels uneasy. The young girl in the painting is Tehura, Gauguin’s thirteen year old Tahitian wife, and according to his letters one evening he came home and found her “immobile, naked, lying face downward flat on the bed with the eyes inordinately large with fear (…) Might she not with my frightened face take me for one of the demons and specters, one of the Tupapaus, with which the legends of her race people sleepless nights?” Some art critics have interpreted her fear as the fear of Gauguin’s voracious, aggressive sexuality, but I will not go into that theory right now. Instead, I will focus on the spirit of the dead as a foreboding, eerie element in the vibrant, cheerful, hot, tropical world which is almost like a heaven on earth in some ways. The presence of Tupao is the infiltration of death and transience in this tropical paradise of vibrant colours, juicy fruit and eternal summer, it is as if his presence calmly says “Et in arcadia ego” and sooner or later, you will all die.

Also, as you can see from the title as well, this is my 700th post!

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri also known as Guercino, Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22