About the artwork
In 1648, Nicholas Poussin completed two landscape paintings based on Plutarch’s story of 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, c402-318 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.
The Funeral of Phocion, of which versions exist in Cardiff, Paris and Connecticut, shows his body being ignominiously removed from the city of Athens to Megara for cremation. The Walker’s painting shows the second part of the story: Landscape with the ashes of Phocion, 1648, where his remains are collected in secret by his widow.
Poussin spent much of his early career in Rome where he had the opportunity to study antique architecture alongside classically inspired buildings of the Italian Renaissance.
In this painting, he attempts to recreate an idealised world of antiquity, through the style of architecture and dress of his figures.
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 believed that the subject matter should dominate an artist. This painting demonstrates his ability to make all parts of a painting contribute to the story he is narrating. Light plays an important role in the drama by illuminating city of Athens, where the virtuous Phocion should have received a hero’s burial, whilst throwing the grieving figures in the foreground into shadow, as they carry out their task almost un-noticed.
The themes of Poussin’s works, even those privately commissioned, were usually of his own choice. He was a man of great intellect and his paintings frequently carry a moral or philosophical message. The subject of this painting was one of particular significance for the artist. He shared Phocion’s philosophy of Stoicism which originated in the Hellenistic world and was revived in the 16th century. This system of thought teaches that virtue is the key to personal moral survival and is the only quality that man has control over. The ideal of inner peace is represented in his paintings in the quiet harmony of his settings and the clarity, logic and order of his compositions.
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 and Carracci. Inspired by Leonardo’s 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 artist Cezanne 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 called Jacques Serier who was also a personal friend of Poussin. The sculptor Bernini 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, the 12th Earl of Derby in 1782 and this painting remained at Knowsley Hall until the Walker acquired it in 1984. It was purchased with the help of the National Art Collections Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund.