Nicolas Poussin and his Phocion landscapes:
The Funeral of Phocion and Gathering of his Ashes by His Widow
Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy, France in June of 1594. His parents encouraged their young son to study and had dreams of their son becoming a member of the legal profession or making a career being a high official post. At eighteen years old Nicolas ran away from his home to Paris a move that was inspired by his desire to become an artist, a profession that was greatly discouraged by his parents. The education that he received as a young man however became extremely important in developing his artistic style and his understanding of the ideas of the antique, due to his ability to read and understand Latin he was able to study the writings of the classical authors.[i] While in Paris between the years of 1612 till about 1623, Nicolas received his first artistic training. He is thought to have been the student of Ferdinard Elle and Georges Lallemand. It was in Paris that he began studying the Mannerist style of painting along with the works of Caravaggio and Giulio Romano who had been students of Raphael. [ii]
Around 1624 Nicolas left Paris and traveled to Italy in order to further his studies as an artist. In Rome he had the opportunity to study the antique monuments and the baroque style.[iii] Poussin continued his education as both a scholar and an artist in Rome. He not only learned Italian, he also studied perspective, anatomy and geometry. The study of perspective, anatomy and geometry were crucial to his understanding of classical art and his desire to create art in the classicizing style.[iv] The Roman intelligentsia groups and especially the circle of Cassiano Dal Pozzo, were of great influence to the paintings of Poussin. His association with the highly educated men such as scientists and antiquaries that were members of these groups, allowed for Poussin to be exposed to the most advanced ideas and thoughts of the time. The exposure to the advanced thinkers is thought to have influenced Poussin to redefine “space within a painting and the relationship between the figures and their setting.”[v] Poussin worked in many different styles and methods of painting while in Rome before he developed his own new and independent style.
In 1648 Poussin began working in a new and distinct landscape style. In this new style of painting Poussin was concerned with the idea expressing his mood through his paintings along with the relationship between the “harmony of nature and the virtue of man.”[vi] In that same year, he created two landscape paintings that are based on the story of Phocion by Plutarch an author from antiquity.[vii] The first painting in this landscape set is the Funeral of Phocion, 1648 (Image A). Phocion was an Athenian general who was
The Funeral of Phocion,
falsely accused of committing treason. As a result of this accusation Phocion was executed and was not permitted burial inside the city.[viii] Poussin chose to depict the removal of Phocions body from the city, a scene that shows the true injustice and persecution of the story. Two men in the central foreground carry the body of Phocion outside the city. The image of the funeral monument located almost directly above the figures in the foreground of the landscape also makes a statement about the false accusation of treason by Phocion. This image of a great funerary monument can be viewed, as a contrast to the burial of shame that Phocion is receiving and the burial of glory and fame he would have received at death, had not been falsely tried for treason.[ix]
The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by His Widow,
The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow (Image B), 1648, is the second half of the pair of paintings that tells the story of Phocion. In this painting the viewer is presented with a landscape that contains two women in the central foreground, one his widow and the other thought to have been either his daughter or a maidservant. The way light falls across the canvas of this painting further increases the drama of the story. The shadows that fall outside the city walls set a dismal tone to the painting. These shadows seem to reflect the sad event of collecting the ashes of Phocion. This dark light is of great contrast to the brightly light Athenian city, sitting on a hill in the background of the composition.[x] The trees in the foreground of the painting frame the landscape and draw the viewers eye to the background of the composition. These trees represent an architectural element created by nature that is enhancing the architectural elements of man.[xi]
Detail of The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion,
The Funeral of Phocion and The Ashes of Phocion Collected by His Widow were created by Poussin to look like a stage set when they are placed side by side.[xii] These two Phocion landscapes not only represent a classical story, they also have been depicted in a highly classicizing style. In this period of his painting career Poussin wanted to recreate on his canvases the ancient Roman world.[xiii] This attempt at the recreation of the ancient world is greatly obvious to the viewer due to the classical architecture and dress of the figures being depicted in the paintings. The landscapes have been constructed in a well- planned format that owes its origin to the classical paintings of the past. Both of the Phocion landscapes represent “order and harmony of nature” and “are presented as if they were architectural constructions, with clearly defined planes within a finite enclosed space.”[xiv] These paintings also represent a ‘civilized’ landscape, meaning that the land has been “dominated and given shape by man” meaning that the architecture of nature was created by the temples and monuments of the ancient people.[xv]
Poussin was responsible for bringing the classical traditions back to art. This movement in art was primarily based on a love and devotion to art from antiquity, and of the works of Raphael and Carracci.[xvi] Poussin was not only interested in classical art from antiquity, he was very interested in classical literature, which is obvious due to the selection of many of his paintings themes have been lifted right from antique writings. Poussin developed his own ‘theory of art,’ which was based on “Leonardo’s treatise on painting…combined with the discussions of aesthetics then vogue in Rome.”[xvii] Included in his theories were his views of what were appropriate subject matters for an artist to work with. Poussin had very strong views regarding the selection of subject, he felt that a subject must dominate the artist; therefore it must be noble, new, and original.[xviii] The theories of art that he developed “became the basis of French classical and academic art, whereby a work was intended to arouse rational and intellectual, rather than visual, response in the viewer.”[xix] This idea of exercising the mind can be seen in both of the Phocion landscape painting. “Poussin provided the French model for a revival of painting because he combined the study of nature and the art of antiquity in an original way that simultaneously revivified the past and signified a ‘living tradition’.”[xx] His influence of style, subject matter, and technique was of major influence and impact to painters even up to the nineteenth century.
[i] Chatelet, Albert and Jacques Thuillier. French Painting: From Fouquet to Poussin. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1963.
[ii] ‘Poussin, Nicolas’, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy (Accessed 4 February 2003), <http://www.groveart.com>
[iii] ‘Poussin, Nicolas’, Encyclopedia.com (Accessed 4 February 2003), <http://encyclopedia.com/html/p/poussinn1.asp>
[iv] Hibbard, Howard. Poussin: The Holy Family on the Steps. John Fleming and Hugh Honour, Eds. London: Allen Lane, 1974. Page 19.
[v] Merot, Alian. French Painting in the Seventeenth Century. Translated by Caroline Beamish. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Page 119.
[vi] ‘Poussin, Nicolas’, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online.
[vii] Phelan, Joseph. ‘Poussin and the Heroic Landscape’, Art Encyclopedia Online, (Accessed 4 February 2003) Page 2. <http://www.artencyclopedia.com/feature-2000-08.html>
[viii] Held, Julius S. and Donald Posner. 17th and 18th Century Art: Baroque Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. H.W. Janson, Ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Page 158.
[ix] Phelan. Page 3.
[x] Phelan. Page 3.
[xi] Held, Julius S. and Donald Posner. Page 158.
[xii] Wright, Christopher. The French Painters of the Seventeenth Century. New York: Graphic Society Book, 1985. Page 70.
[xiii] Cropper, Elizabeth and Charles Dempsey. Nicolas Poussin: Friendship and the Love of Painting. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996. Page 281.
[xiv] ‘Poussin, Nicolas’, The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, Page 2.
[xv] Held, Julius S. and Donald Posner. Page 158.
[xvi] Held, Julius S. and Donald Posner. Page 152.
[xvii] Chatelet, Albert and Jacques Thuillier. Page 219.
[xviii] Chatelet, Albert and Jacques Thuillier. Page 220.
[xix] ‘Poussin, Nicolas’, Encyclopedia.com
[xx] Cropper, Elizabeth and Charles Dempsey. Page 8.
Image A: The Funeral of Phocion, 1648, Nicolas Poussin. Oil on canvas, 114 x 175 cm.
Image taken from Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Kren and Daniel Marx.
Image B: The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by His Widow, 1648, Nicolas Poussin.
Oil on canvas, 116 x 176 cm. Image taken from <http://www.i-a-s.de/IAS/Bilder/POUSSIN/phocion.htm>
Image C: Detail of The Gathering of the Ashes of Phocion by His Widow, 1648, Nicolas Poussin. Image taken from <www.rtitlebaum.com/Old%20Masters/ Hellas.jpg>