“Our joy be Arcadian, and free!” Arcadia in German Prints Around 1800

Fig. 1. Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Et in Arcadia ego (1801), etching, 40.9 x 52.7 cm, Charles Booth-Clibborn collection, London (Contemporary Editions Ltd, London).

Fig. 1. Carl Wilhelm Kolbe, Et in Arcadia ego (1801), etching, 40.9 x 52.7 cm, Charles Booth-Clibborn collection, London (Contemporary Editions Ltd, London).

The idealized land of Arcadia, referred to in art and literature since antiquity, held a special place in the imaginations of artists and writers in German-speaking countries around 1800.1 By the time Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832) addressed the subject in Faust (published in two parts in 1808 and 1832), there was already an esteemed tradition of Arcadian landscape in the manner of painters such as Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Claude Lorrain (1600–1682), but to German artists of the period Arcadia presented the opportunity for oblique social and political commentary. Arcadia, where inhabitants lived freely and harmoniously in a land of unspoiled natural bounty, provided an obvious counterpoint to the authoritarian structures that still prevailed in German states under the Holy Roman Empire. The very concept pointed to the gradual undermining of the old regime by the Napoleonic conquests of the early 19th century and the stirrings of German nationalism as well as political modernization. The ruling classes in general could not really take offense at such images since they too saw Arcadia as the embodiment of a longed-for freedom and informality. The bucolic pastimes so diligently pursued by members of the nobility under the old order served as diversions from the constraints of court etiquette; they were also the expression of a sentimental yearning for a natural, simple life.2

Become a subscriber to Art in Print to continue reading.

Subscriptions start at just $38 and include instant access to our digital archive.

Share:Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page


  1. The source of the phrase in the title is Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Faust, II, verse 9573: “Arkadisch frei sey unser Glück!” []
  2. An introduction to the subject can be found in Petra Maisak, Arkadien. Genese und Typologie einer idyllischen Wunschwelt (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 1981). []