Phocion was an Athenian general who was executed in the 4th century B.C. after a false accusation of treason. As punishment, his body was cremated outside the city walls. This painting shows his wife secretly collecting his ashes to hide illegally. The stillness of the landscape and architecture is contrasted with the tension in the front of the painting. The widow’s companion appears to sense the spying youth hidden in the nearby grove. The rocky landscape towers over the buildings, perhaps a reminder of the power of nature over humankind.
This work was commissioned by a wealthy French silk merchant, along with another painting showing Phocion’s funeral (now on loan to the National Museum of Wales).