In 1889, the vocation of Maurice Denis, nicknamed "the Nabi with beautiful icons", was already clear. In July 1888, he had already represented himself in a pencil-drawn Self-Portrait, wearing an artist's jacket and a floppy necktie; this was the year he entered the School of Fine Arts and the Académie Julian where he was to make the acquaintance of Sérusier, Ibels and Ranson. This was also the year of Sérusier's Talisman (Paris, Musée d'Orsay).
In 1889, he painted pieces as committed as the two first versions of Catholic Mystery (Private collection and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Musée Départemental Maurice Denis) and Climbing to the Calvary (Musée d'Orsay). The following year would be that of his definition of a painting as "a plane surface…" that was to make him the most active theoretician of the Nabi movement.
The artist often represented himself from the beginning of his career to maturity, either alone on paintings with inventive layouts, or in the company of relatives. In these varied pictures, he always appears as Bonnard described him in 1945, two years after he passed away, as if the passing of years had had but little effect on him: "Denis had a round face, rather smiling, on which one could read will and thoughtfulness. His blue eye was looking inward." (Pierre Bonnard, Exhibition cat. Maurice Denis, Musée National d'Art Moderne, 1945, p. 5 "Presentation by Pierre Bonnard").