Claire Denis will include this painting in her forthcoming Denis catalogue raisonné.
The synthesis of ideas that the Nabis were seeking at their outset came in the form of a small painting of a woodland pond that Sérusier had brought back from Pont-Aven in 1888. Painted under the guidance of Paul Gauguin, it showed a landscape reduced to flat areas of colour straight from the tube and mixed only with white. It became known among the Nabis as Le Talisman (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Denis was not yet twenty years old when in 1890 he wrote in Definition du Néo-traditionnisme, his first published article, one of the most famous statements about modern art: 'Remember that a painting, before it is a war horse, a female nude or some little genre scene, is primarily a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order' (quoted in ibid., p. 116).
Denis had been drawn as a youth to the paintings of the Quattrocento master Fra Angelico and the other Italian primitives, and as a devout Catholic, sought to revive the great religious subjects of the past and place them in a modern context. In addition to assimilating the stylistic advances of Gauguin, he also closely studied the work of Seurat, who, as Denis recognized, 'was the first to try to replace a more or less fanciful improvisation, after nature, by a reflective working method' (quoted in ibid.). Denis purchased one of Seurat's studies for The Bathers at Asnières and briefly used divisionism in his own paintings. However, Denis was ultimately more interested in the decorative aspect and the use of the arabesque in Seurat's compositions, and Denis called his own approach Neo-traditionism in order to differentiate it from the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat and Signac.
The currents running through Denis' work in the 1890s are discernible in the present painting, which shows the artist's wife Marthe breastfeeding their son Jean-Paul, who was born in October 1894. Marthe's sister Eva, who taught piano and was married to a pupil of the painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, looks on at right. In January 1895 the artist wrote to his friend, the novelist André Gide: 'I have forgotten to tell you about my labours, which are those of a patient and scrupulous worker, my utterly simple life, centred on the graceful baby that the good Lord has sent me, and the light that all throws on myself, on life' (quoted in ibid., p. 197). Denis painted numerous pictures of his wife and infant son, including several versions of this subject, one of which Gertrude and Leo Stein later acquired and hung among their Rose period Picassos. The present painting was probably executed around the time of the January letter. In June of the following year their first daughter, Noëlle was born, and Denis painted her with Marthe on numerous occasions.