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The early 1880s was a critical period of transition for Pissarro. His landscape production, so characteristic of the 1870s, dwindled in favor of monumental figure paintings. At the same time, his brushwork evolved toward uniformly small, evenly distributed, and carefully controlled touches of paint, a method that was closer to Cézanne's constructivist stroke than to the free, painterly handling of the Impressionist idiom. Finally, his technical practice became more complex, involving more studio work and increased preparatory drawing, and he began series of works in other media, including watercolors, gouaches, and prints. Richard Brettell describes the early 1880s as "the most extensive period of pictorial experimentation in Pissarro's career," and concludes, "All of these varied interests suggest a fundamental questioning of the kind of painting normally associated with Impressionism, the plein-air sketch, and a more complicated, highly mediated relationship with 'reality' than a simple optical one. For Pissarro in this period, a simple equation between seeing and representing was both undesirable and impossible" (in Pissarro and Pontoise: The Painter in a Landscape, New Haven, 1990, p. 184).
Femme bêchant is a prime example of the most significant group of paintings that Pissarro made during the 1880s, a series depicting peasants engaged in everyday chores. It shows a woman digging in the garden with a long-handled spade, a motif that Pissarro explored in at least three other paintings from this time (Pissarro and Venturi nos. 534, 573, 618). Pissarro's paintings from this period have often been compared with those of Millet, the painter of peasants par excellence. In a review of the 1882 Impressionist exhibition, Ernest Chesneau declared, "Since Millet, no one has observed and depicted the peasant with such powerful vigor and with such accurate and personal vision" (quoted in J. Pissarro, op. cit., p. 156). Other contemporary critics, however, disagreed. J.-K. Huysmans, for example, wrote in 1882, "Pissarro exhibits an entire series of peasant men and women, and once again this painter shows himself to us in a new light. Pissarro has entirely detached himself from Millet's memory. He paints his country people without false grandeur, simply as he sees them. His little girls in their red stockings, his old woman wearing a kerchief, his shepherdesses and laundresses, his peasant girls cutting hay or eating, are all true small masterpieces" (quoted in ibid., p. 157). Pissarro himself also eschewed the comparison to Millet, writing to his son Lucien, "It is the same for my peasants, which people used to say are done à la Millet. People have since realized their mistake" (quoted in ibid., p. 157). In a recent monograph on the artist, Joachim Pissarro concludes,
No brief or simplistic account can properly circumscribe the rich and varied complexity of these paintings of figures. Certainly, Millet in no way 'explains' Pissarro. Pissarro's figures do not carry a message with a lofty content, any ideal. Nor, however, do they purport to convey an exact account of what male and female peasants actually looked like in northern France during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. While they are not allegories, neither are they sociological documents. From this difficulty, which is both essential and highly characteristic of Pissarro's figure paintings, the manifold interpretations of his work have arisen (ibid., p. 157).