Throughout his career, Légaré, the first history painter to have been born in Canada, drew from the works of other artists, incorporating certain of their motifs in his original compositions. In this earliest known secular painting by him, the figure kneeling down in the foreground has been borrowed from an engraving by Lucas Vosterman after a Peter Paul Rubens painting, the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. Here only the position of the left hand has been changed, and a piece of burning wood replaces the original basket. In the foreground on the left, the figure of Talasco, an Iroquois chief and the father of the martyr, is also reminiscent of one in the engraving. The depiction of the martyr herself is based on a tracing of that of Leda in the engraving Leda and the Swan made by Philippe Trière after a painting by Andrea del Sarto, while the motif of the tree, which serves as a repoussoir for the figures, calls to mind a number of works by Salvator Rosa.
The subject of this composition was taken from a passage in a work (Paris, 1744) by the Jesuit priest Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761), the Histoire et description générale de la Nouvelle-France [History and General Description of New France], published in 1827 in the monthly La Bibliothèque canadienne. It recounts the martyrdom of a young Iroquois woman, recently converted to Catholicism, who refused to renounce her new faith. Turning towards her father, Françoise cried out, “A Christian martyr can endure as firmly as the proudest captive of your tribe,” to which Talasco replied, “The pure blood of the Iroquois runs in her veins: Prepare the pile—the shadows of this night shall cover her ashes.” Infuriated at hearing his daughter continue to insist on the virtue of her torments, like those of Christ, Talasco “leaped upon the pile, and tearing the crucifix from her hands, he drew his knife from his girdle, and made an incision on her breast in the form of a cross.”