Lagrenée was celebrated for his small-scale cabinet paintings of classical and mythological subjects. Here, three women tend to two infants within a sunlit loggia. The warm light, tiles underfoot, and leafy trees in the background suggest that the scene takes place in temperate climes. To an 18th-century audience, the women’s clothing would have been immediately understood as antique dress.
Depictions of motherhood, and particularly breastfeeding, became increasingly popular in the second half of the 18th century. The writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau prompted a debate about mothers nursing their own children (then an uncommon practice). Lagrenée’s allegorical depiction of motherhood is both tender and elegant, executed with his characteristically meticulous brushwork and harmonious colouring.
Signed and dated 1773, it is possible that Lagrenée exhibited Maternal Affection at the Salon of 1773 under the title 'La Douceur'. That painting was bought by the Earl of Shelburne (1737–1805), in whose posthumous sale of 1806 a ‘Maternal Affection’ by Lagrenée appears.