The Latin phrase that Waugh used for the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited (“Et in Arcadio Ego”) was mentioned in a recent post in connection with Paul Theroux’s humorous allusion to it in his recent novel Mother Land. Since that was posted, the source of this phrase has become the subject of an article in the latest Evelyn Waugh Studies (“Et in Chatsworth Ego?”) issued earlier this week in which Peter J Comerford argues that Waugh most likely first encountered the phrase in a painting by Poussin. This is the same point argued by the character Floyd in the Theroux novel: “What I had in mind was the ambiguous painting by Nicholas Poussin in which the enigmatic ego might–who knows?–refer to death speaking.” Comerford points out, however, that there are two versions of this painting, one in the Louvre (1637-38) and another earlier one (1627) at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Floyd, although ever the pedant, seems to have been unaware of this, and if his brother Jay, the narrator of Theroux’s novel, had known about it, there would surely have been a more extended exchange of satirical familial banter on that point.
Comerford persuasively demonstrates that Waugh had opportunities to see both of these paintings, but thinks his use in Brideshead must have been inspired by the Chatsworth version. This is both because of how the phrase is interpreted in that version and because of the presence of a skull on top of the tomb. But this analysis does not address the point raised in Theroux’s novel by Floyd’s wife, Gloria. This is the possibility that Waugh may have been influenced by the painting of another artist, Guercino. His painting predated (1618-22) those by Poussin and probably inspired them. Guercino’s painting is housed in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome. After looking at all three versions on the internet, the Guercino seems as close as Poussin’s “Chatworth” version to Waugh’s use of the painting in the novel. In fact, the skull and inscription are much more prominent in Guercino’s painting than in Poussin’s.
So Gloria may be more that just the “clever girl” described by Floyd in Theroux’s novel. She may, in fact, have trumped her husband with a better answer since Guercino’s painting is widely accepted as the source of those by Poussin . Neither Comerford nor one of his sources Michael Brennan (Evelyn Waugh: Fictions, Faith and Family) considers the possibility that Waugh may have been inspired by the Guercino painting, although Brennan acknowledges its existence and similarity to the earlier of the Poussins. It may be doubtful that there is any detailed evidence to prove that Waugh may have seen the Guercino at the Galleria Nazionale, such as that which Comerford and Brennan cite for Waugh’s opportunities to have seen the Poussins. But he was certainly a visitor in Rome on any number of occasions before writing Brideshead and could have done so (assuming that the painting was in the Galleria Nazionale at that time). On the other hand, in addition to the Diary citation quoted by Comerford, Waugh mentions Poussin favorably several times in his fiction and non-fiction but doesn’t seem to have expressed any written opinion about Guercino, which would tend to weaken Gloria’s case.
Comerford’s article also brings into focus another point. Prof Paul Doyle in his Waugh Companion, as mentioned in the earlier post, cited a 1968 article by Ernest Panofsky referring to other paintings dating back to the Renaissance displaying the Latin phrase. Assuming there are such paintings, they remain relatively obscure, and most of the discussion on the subject of “Et in Arcadia Ego” as represented in a painting is limited to the two artists mentioned in Theroux’s novel and in the writings of Comerford and Brennan.