In his Memorable Acts and sayings of the Ancient Romans, the fourth-century historian Valerius Maximus tells the story of Cimon, forced to starve to death in prison, and his devoted daughter, Pero, who sustained him solely with her breast milk. Pero was regarded as a paragon of filial piety, and the subject was popular with seventeenth and eighteenth-century artists both for its antiquity and its erotic potential. In Lagrenée's painting Cimon kneels on the floor at his daughter's breast, one arm chained at his back and the other between her knees. She lifts her robe in a protective gesture as she turns, startled, towards the approaching guards who appear in the window at the left. The white expanse of her chest and its proximity to her father's weathered skin adds introduces a titillating element to the scene.
The subject of Cimon and Pero, better known as Roman Charity, was a popular Baroque subject with both painters and sculptors. Caravaggio, for example, included it as an allegory of one of the seven acts of mercy in an altarpiece of 1607 (church of Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples), and Murillo and Rubens both placed father and daughter in the enclosed space of a prison cell, the latter in his painting of 1612 (The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg). Rubens' painting was an allegory bought by the Prince de Conti in 1767, thus fueling the popularity of the subject in France. While Lagrenée painted the subject twice over a fifteen year period, first for the Salon of 1765 and (with this painting) in 1781, both belong to his earlier, more Baroque compositions, before he embraced the Neoclassical aesthetic so evident in such paintings as Ulysses on the Island of Phoenicians (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Narbonne) of 1791. Other of his contemporaries who depicted the subject include Giuseppe Baldrighi, who exhibited a Roman Charity at the Salon in 1756, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
Jean-Jacques Lagrenée was born in Paris in 1739 into a family of artists. He studied painting with his brother, Louis Jean-François, and was admitted into the Académie de France in Rome, where he remained a pensionnaire from 1763 to 1768. Lagrenée is best known for his history subjects, but he also painted decorative works such as Allegory of Winter for the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre (in situ). He became a member of the Académie Royale in 1775 and received commissions from important patrons such as the Comte d'Angiviller, Directeur-Général des Bâtiments for Louis XVI. Between 1785 and 1800 Lagrenée was the artistic director for the Manufacture de Sèvres, where he created many new Neoclassical designs, including the Etruscan service for Marie-Antoinette's dairy at the Château of Rambouillet. He continued painting until his death in 1821.