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Nicolas Poussin and the Pontils Tomb Landscape

There has been much debate over whether the hilly landscape appearing in the 'Shepherds of Arcadia' is in fact a view towards the village of Rennes-le-Chateau. If it can be shown there is a likeness, it would go some way to proving what many have said, that Poussin visited the area and saw the tomb which he then painted. He would probably have made some sketches to work from, painting the picture in his studio at a later date. Though there is no proof Poussin ever visited the area, there is also no proof that he didn't’t. What is well known is that Poussin spent most of his life living and painting in Paris and Rome, also there are gaps during his early years of his whereabouts. Around the time the 'The Shepherds of Arcadia' was painted, (circa 1640) he seems to have been on the road from Paris to Rome. It is not unconceivable to think that he could have traveled to the area of Arques on the way, saw the tomb and made a sketch which he then later referred to when he painted the Shepherds of Arcadia.

Painting and Pontils Landscape Comparison

Shepherds of Arcadia removed from its frame.

Shepherds of Arcadia removed from its frame.

Shepherds of Arcadia from the Louvre.

Shepherds of Arcadia from the Louvre.

Shepherds of Arcadia painting and an old photograph of the Pontils tomb showing the landscape.

Above we have the Shepherds of Arcadia painting and an old photograph of the Pontils tomb showing the landscape.

The two images shown above are a good match for the angle of the tomb. It would be no good using a photograph taken closer to the tomb as the trees would obscure the landscape. By comparing the two we can see there is a similarity in the rock formations on the skyline, but this is not a view towards Cardou and Rennes le Chateau but towards the Gorges de Bezis. The entrance to this valley is marked by two rock formations seen high on the hill on either side. The left outcrop is 'les Toustounes'. The rock on the right is 'Roc di Quiloute.''

The shepherds and the tomb from the Poussin painting placed in the Pontils Tomb position.

The shepherds and the tomb from the Poussin painting placed in the Pontils Tomb position.

The group of figures and the tomb fit nicely over the Pontils tomb in the photograph and do not seem out of place in the landscape. You can almost imagine Poussin sitting by the bridge sketching or painting this view, if in deed it and the road were here during this time.

The Bezis valley View.

Poussin painting Landscape

Poussin painting Landscape

The view from Pontils tomb towards the Bezis valley.

The view from Pontils tomb towards the Bezis valley.

I think most people looking at the above two images would see a slight likeness between the rock formations in the Shepherds of Arcadia painting and the Bezis valley rock formations. I think we have to ignore the rising hills to the sides of the rocky outcrops in our comparison as this would no doubt have been changed anyway for the painting's layout.

Close-up photograph of Les Toustounes. It almost looks like a side view of a face or skull .

Close-up photograph of Les Toustounes. It almost looks like a side view of a face or skull .

The view towards Rennes-le-Château

We know, from photographic records, the location and angle of the Pontils tomb compared to the surrounding landscape, and if we compare it to the Poussin painting, the view is undeniably towards the Bezis valley and not Rennes-le-Chateau. But for Poussin to have painted the tomb at the correct angle to show Pech Cardou, Blanchefort and Rennes-le-Chateau in the background he would have had to paint the tomb head on losing its perspective. This would not have worked in the painting. An end view is needed to give the tomb depth and perspective. This could explain why the angle of the tomb in the painting when compared to the landscape indicates a view towards the Bezis valley and not Rennes le Chateau, but when correct painting layout is considered the view could be towards Rennes-le-Château.

Example of the Pontils Tomb perspective

Example of the Tomb perspective. (left) Front face view would show the Rennes-le-Chateau Landscape. (right) This angle would show the Bezis Valley landscape. As you can see the tomb perspective on the right is much more pleasing and has depth, unlike the tomb shown 'face on' which has no perspective.

View from the hill across the road from the Pontils tomb area towards Rennes-le-Château.

View from the hill across the road from the Pontils tomb area towards Rennes-le-Château.

Commonly named local landmarks said to appear in the painting.

Commonly named local landmarks said to appear in the painting.

The view compared to the Nicolous Poussin painting landscape.

The view compared to the Nicolas Poussin painting landscape.

 

Landscape similarities.

Pech Cardou with the hill angle changed to match the painting's rocky outcrop.

Pech Cardou Comparison.

Pech Cardou Comparison.

Ignoring the opposite sloping angles of the landscape in the Pech Cardou view, I have marked the landscape similarities. As you can see the rock formation and the sloping hillside to their right are similar.

Blanchefort Comparison.

Most people comparing this view indicate 1 as Blanchefort and 2 as Rennes-le-Château. The shape of the Poussin rock is similar to the Blanchefort rock, though the painting rock is flatter on top. If Poussin painted this view, placing the village here would seem to make sense in the layout we can see. But if this is correct what is the structure I have numbered 3? To me 3 seems a better match for Blanchefort, but if so what is 1?

Some have suggested that 1 is Pech Cardou and 3 is Blanchefort but 1 is too flat on top to be a good match for Cardou. With its square looking appearance 1 looks like a man-made structure. At the top of Blanchefort are the remains of some buildings commonly thought to be the ruins of Chateau Blanchefort. I believe it is doubtful a chateau ever existed on Blanchefort, but the ruins we can see today are evidence of a building or buildings once constructed there. Read my Article about Blanchefort Chateau HERE.

I believe that two watch towers may have once highlighted the skyline on Blanchefort. One of the towers would have looked out towards Cardou, Serres, Peyrolles, Rennes-les-Bains and the Pontils tomb. The second would have looked towards Cassaignes, Coustaussa, Couiza, and of course Rennes-le-Chateau. Both towers would have enabled anyone posted there a good view in all directions of anyone traveling to or from the area. Maybe a signal system was in place to warn of approaching danger. So could ‘1’ and ‘3’, with a bit of imagination, be the two Blanchefort towers? They are certainly square enough to look man-made so it’s not an impossible conclusion to make. But then perhaps I am wrong about there never being a chateau on Blanchefort, perhaps Poussin had knowledge of  this chateau, and if he did paint this view, included it in his painting.

Similar construction layout to the Blanchefort ruins. Could similar towers have once looked out on the landscape from the top of Blanchefort?

Similar construction layout to the Blanchefort ruins. Could similar towers have once looked out on the landscape from the top of Blanchefort?

Perhaps the landscape Poussin painted, if it is of the landscape seen around Pontils, is of both views, the Bezis valley and the view showing Cardou, Blanchefort and Rennes-le-Chateau. Maybe 1 is Roc di Quiloutié, 3 is Blanchefort and 2 is Rennes-le-Chateau, but then we would have to ignore Pech Cardou and this would almost certainly have been included if this is the view towards Rennes-le-Chateau.

I had read somewhere that Rennes-le-Chateau could not be seen from the Pontils tomb as it was obscured by the hill of Blanchefort. Using a road map of the area I checked to see if there was in fact a line of sight from the Pontils tomb to the hill of Rennes-le-Chateau. This is indicated by the red line on the map.

  Rennes-le-Chateau map

As you can see there is a clear line of sight between the two.

In Conclusion.

When I first decided to compare the Shepherds of Arcadia painting to the landscape seen from the Pontils tomb area, I thought it would be an easy task to dismiss the similarity between the two, but it hasn't. I think most people would agree there are definitely similarities in the Poussin painting to the landscape seen from the Pontils tomb, whether it is towards the Bezis valley or Rennes-le-Chateau. Are they similar enough to categorically state they are the same? I do not believe so, but neither are they dissimilar enough to categorically state they aren't. I am afraid the debate must continue and will only end if we find proof, if it exists, that Poussin, while traveling to or from Rome, visited the Pontils area, saw the tomb and decided to make some sketches as reference for a painting he would carry out at a later date and then name it Shepherds of Arcadia.' I feel it will be a long wait

Like much in the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, I think people sometimes see what they want to see without considering all the evidence that may shed doubt on their theories. Even though I have never used it in my research, I think it would be great to positively link the Shepherds of Arcadia to the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, but like everyone else I will have to wait to see if that ever happens.

My research has led me to find a second Pontils Tomb only a few yards from the tomb discussed here. This second tomb, if that is what it is, could be the tomb constructed in 1903 by Bourrel for the Gilibert family and then utilised by Louis Lawrence in 1921 and not the Pontils tomb normally associated with them. Could this be evidence that the Pontils Tomb we know of today was older than originally thought?

Related Research Articles

Pontils Tomb Research 1

Galibert Tomb in Limoux

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