Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion Nicolas Poussin Buy Art Prints Now
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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This painting seems to be a lovely peaceful landscape, with people walking through a park, in glorious sunshine – beautifully tranquil and soothing. But Landscape with the Ashes of Phocion, by Nicolas Poussin could not be more deceptive!

Phocion was a highly respected statesman in ancient Athens, incorruptible at a time when most other senators and officials were practically blatant in their accepting of bribes and favours from the wealthy. As a result, he was the most elected official, working as a strategos for much of his very long life. Sadly, he was led astray by an enemy of Athens in whom he placed too much trust, enabling the enemy to escape Athenian troops and imprisonment. When asked why he would do such a thing, Phocion shrugged it off, saying that he felt the man was badly maligned and would not harm Athens, despite the fears of the Athenian elders.

In this he was wrong, and was doubly betrayed: being captured by his erstwhile prisoner, and then handed over to Athenian justice which, probably quite fairly, even Phocion admitted, saw him sentenced to death. So noble was Phocion that he pleaded for leniency for his fellow conspirators saying that their only fault was to trust him. The reply in those harsh times, was that that was enough to assure their own death sentences and that justice would be pursued...

Phocion and his fellow traitors were given a preparation of hemlock to drink, and once again Phocion showed his nobility, waiting until all his fellows had drunk the preparation, instead of hastening to drink the poison and be one of the first to die. Unfortunately, this meant that the hemlock ran out and there was not enough left to kill Phocion. The executioner refused to make more without a further payment, so there was a momentary hiatus while a friend of Phocion's chipped in the required money on his behalf.

Even after death, Phocion's narrative continues. As was befitting of the body of a traitor, his remains were meant to be disposed of outside the city, with a civilised cremation or burial denied to him. He was, in fact taken out of the city and burned, but his wife managed to locate his burned remains: the ashes of the title, and she gathered as many as these as she could, along with some larger of his body parts that had escaped the flames. It is this rather grisly moment that is caught on canvas in what seems to be a rather peaceful setting, where olive trees soften the outline of Greek buildings, and cloud-studded blue sky overlooks all! The painting, oil on canvas, hands in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool and measures an impressive 116.5cm by 178.5cm.