During the last years of the 1870s, Morisot became fascinated by the use of white, gray, silver, and gold, creating a series of paintings that represent veritable symphonies of this restricted range of tones. The present composition, depicting the dining room of the artist's apartment at 9, avenue d'Eylau (now avenue Victor Hugo), is one of the culminating canvases in this sequence of virtuoso tonal paintings. Charles Stuckey has written, "Morisot's command of just such silver and gold harmonies is remarkable in [this painting]... Her subject is the shimmering play of light in a dining room, transforming a clutter of mundane objects, including tableware, porcelain, bread, a rustic cupboard, and a maid's uniform, into a faceted, jewel-like realm of color" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1987, pp. 83 and 88). Particularly striking in Dans la salle à manger is Morisot's exploration of the effects of light on white, which is applied with splintered, energetic brushstrokes as a pure, unmixed color. Keenly aware of her obsession with white, Morisot noted in her journal that by comparison, "Everything else seems indifferent" (quoted in ibid., p. 197). Morisot's decision to portray the maid from behind serves both to heighten the sense of intimacy in the scene and to limit the role of expression or gesture. The human figure becomes just one more element in the orchestration of opalescent tones, no different from the bowl on the table or the dishes on the shelves.
In April 1880, Morisot sent ten of her most recent oils (not including the present one, which may have been painted later in the year) to the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition, where the inherently poetic qualities of their silver and gray color harmonies met with widespread critical acclaim. Paul Mantz wrote in Le Temps, "Morisot excels in the mixture of subtly shaded pallid tones... Everything is floating; nothing is formulated. The tone itself hesitates, undecided, and there is in it a Fragonardian refinement, the feeling of a phantom world" (quoted in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874-1886, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1986, p. 328). Eugène Véron, the critic for L'Art, agreed: "She has reduced painting to its simplest expression. Color is almost absent and her figures recall those fleeting and floating shadows that Virgil describes in the Aeneid or Dante in the Divine Comedy. These attenuations of color, however, do not rob her painting of its delicate and sensitive tone" (quoted in ibid., p. 328).
Other nineteenth-century viewers were troubled by the extremely free handling of Morisot's work from this period, which they described as unfinished and incoherent (the same criticisms, notably, that were often leveled at Manet, Morisot's brother-in-law and close friend). With these paintings, Morisot seems to have wanted to test certain formal limits: note, for instance, the way that the maid's right side merges with the background in the present picture, the bold, choppy brushstrokes dissolving form rather than defining it. The exceptionally active surface of Morisot's canvases also serves to illuminate the act of painting itself, which the artist once compared to being "engaged in a pitched battle" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1987, p. 189). Linda Nochlin has concluded, "The way in which the paintings reveal the act of working are sparkling, invigorating, and totally uneffortful-looking registers of the process of painting itself... The work of painting was never to be so strongly revealed again until the time of the late Claude Monet or even of Abstract Expressionism" ("Morisot's Wet Nurse: The Construction of Work and Leisure in Impressionist Painting," in Perspectives on Morisot, New York, 1990, pp. 99-100).