The gathering of the ashes of Phocion by his widow | Nicolas Poussin | 1648
Being 18 years, against the wishes of his family to pursuit a career in law, the French Nicolas Poussin escapes from Normandy, his hometown, heading towards Paris, to make his dream of becoming an artist come true. There, for 11 years, he studies mannerist painting with several teachers.
Not satisfied with that, being 29, he decides to move to Rome, where he has the chance to study ancient monuments and the baroque movement. In the Italian capital city, Poussin goes beyond painting and he learns perspective, anatomy and geometry, which is fundamental to understand his decision of devoting himself to classical art.
He begins to paint landscapes, by the mission of expressing “the harmony of nature related to the virtue of man”. In this context, he uses his deep knowledge of Latin to think about the story of Phocion, written by Plutarch.
In this story, we learn that Phocion was a virtuous Athenian general wrongfully accused of treason (although some versions refer “political mistakes”) and, thus, he was sentenced to death. To avoid the funeral pyre rite, a custom in that time, an edict was signed in order to forbid his family to do it, and they decided to take the general’s body to another Greek city, Megara, where they perform the cremation of his body.
Poussin paints 2 canvas related to the death of Phocion. On one hand, The funeral of Phocion; and, on the other, The gathering of the ashes of Phocion by his widow. The last one is acknowledged the best as it has more content and it is more dramatic than the first one.
In it, at the front, we see the widow gathering her husband´s ashes after the cremation, next to her maid. The play of lights and shadows has its own clear meaning: the side of the road where they are in is covered by a huge darkness, generated by the shadow of the trees. However, the widow remains lighten, as if she has her own brightness. And this contrast makes us pay attention to what is going on. Next to her, the maid, clearly accessory, seems like she wants to make sure that no one finds out what they are doing.
In the back, we see the city of Megara as an ideal landscape: people there are only having fun and taking naps, completely unaware of the pain and suffering the starring of the canvas is experiencing. It seems like, by these kind of contrasts, Nicolas Poussin wants to express himself rather than merely provide an anecdotic description of the story.