In 1648, Poussin completed two landscape paintings based on Plutarch’s (45 AD - 120 AD) story the 'Life of Phocion' written in 75 AD. These works marked a change in the French artist’s style of painting as he moved away from historical narrative and developed a new approach to landscape. Unlike the works of his Flemish contemporaries, his landscapes were heroic rather than rustic. In their solemn grandeur they framed stories from classical and biblical sources and established a relationship between man and nature.
Phocion (born around 402 BC, died 318 BC) was an Athenian general and politician, known as Phocion 'the Good'. He was greatly admired for his honesty and virtue and also for the simple, frugal way he lived his life. In his 84th year, however, he was falsely accused of treason and executed by his political enemies. As a traitor, he was denied a burial in Athens and so the cremation of his body took place outside the boundaries of the city.
Poussin painted several versions of 'The Funeral of Phocion' and they can be found in collections in Cardiff, Paris and Connecticut. These paintings show Phocion's body being ignominiously removed from the city of Athens to Megara for cremation. The Walker’s painting shows the second part of the story where Phocion's remains are collected in secret by his widow.
The trees in the foreground frame the scene and the eye is drawn to the classical temple in the centre of the painting and subsequently to the female figures below it. These women represent Phocion’s widow and a trusted maidservant.
The well-proportioned classical architecture of the middle-ground is complemented by the equally structured trees and landscape. The scene has been composed to represent a ‘civilised’ harmonious landscape, formed and dominated by man. It is a setting for human drama rather than a landscape in its own right and the artist often worked out the scenes for his paintings like a stage set, using small wax figures.
Poussin was largely responsible for a revival in classicism, through his study and admiration for the art and literature of antiquity, and for artists such as Raphael (1483 - 1520) and Carracci (1560 - 1609). Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452 - 1519) treatise on painting, he wrote his own theories of art which became the basis of neo-classicism in France. His rigidly constructed landscapes also inspired the French artist Paul Cezanne (1839 - 1906) who became one of the pioneers of Modernism.
'Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion' and its companion piece were painted for the Lyons silk merchant and collector of art Jacques Sensier who was also a personal friend of Poussin. The sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 - 1680) saw them in Sensier’s collection in 1665 and famously remarked as he tapped his forehead, “Signor Poussin is a painter who works from there.”
Landscape with the ashes of Phocion, was later bought by Edward Smith Stanley (1752 - 1834), the 12th Earl of Derby in 1782 and this painting remained at Knowsley Hall until the Walker acquired it in 1984.