In this touching scene of a young girl sewing in order to help her mother, Waldmüller shows many of the qualities that made him such a popular artist of the period. From the 1840s onwards he turned increasingly to scenes of peasant life, exploring in particular the role of the family, painting less of the portraits, landscapes and flower pieces that dominated his early career. These genre paintings or Sittenbilder represent a large part of his mature output, and are the paintings for which he is chiefly remembered today.
Waldmüller frequently sought inspiration from the Old Masters in relation to these pictures. As a young artist he used to copy paintings in the major collections and Municipal Galleries of Vienna, and the present work is clearly reminiscent of Dutch 17th century genre painting. Gerrit Dou's Woman at the Clavichord (fig. 1), exhibits many of the features that Waldmüller would include in the present picture. Both present a similar composition with a girl seated in the middle of a room, facing towards a window high on the left. The light from the window shines directly onto the seated figure, highlighting her against the dark interior. Artists such as Dou were also famous for their depictions of different textiles. Waldmüller similarly pays close attention to the fabrics in the present picture, particularly the delicate folds of the girl's skirt and shawl, and the drape over the chair. The interior, like Dou's, is also framed by an arch at the top of the composition, a motif that Waldmüller often returned to.
This idealised domestic scene also owes much to 18th century French artists that were much admired by Waldmüller, such as Greuze, with their display of sensibilité, and moral rectitude. The virtuous act here depicted is made explicit in the title, and the implication is that although poor, this young girl who works to help her ill mother, achieves a nobility of spirit. She may also be seen as the personification of selflessness and devout goodness.
Waldmüller painted a larger version of the present picture, again dated 1850, which was exhibited at the Dresden Academy in 1852 (Grimschitz, op. cit., incorrectly states that the present picture was the version exhibited). Such scenes proved very popular for the artist and he also painted numerous other works depicting family loyalty and the bond between mothers and children, the most famous being Müttergluck, which exists in several versions. In these pictures it is usually the mother who represents the virtues of generosity, love and security, whereas in the present picture the roles have been reversed, and it is the daughter who is here seen as the caring protector.