During the first fifteen years of his career as a painter, Sisley lived and worked in a succession of towns west of Paris in the lush valley of the Seine, including Bougival, Louveciennes, Marly-le-Roi, and Sèvres. In January 1880, a time of dire financial straits for many of the Impressionists, Sisley left the Paris suburbs for the more rural region near the confluence of the Seine and Loing, about seventy-five kilometers southeast of the capital. He settled initially at Veneux-Nadon on the left bank of the Loing, in a house just a few minutes walk from the railway station. In the fall of 1882, he moved about three miles southeast, to the medieval town of Moret-sur-Loing; he stayed there, however, for only a year before relocating to the hamlet of Les Sablons, on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau immediately adjacent to Veneux-Nadon. He explained in a letter to Paul Durand-Ruel dated August 1883, "I have decided to leave Moret at the earliest possible opportunity, as it's not very good for my heart... However, I'm not going very far: to Les Sablons, a quarter of an hour away, but with better air" (quoted in R. Shone, Sisley, London, 1992, p. 142). In 1889, Sisley returned to Moret, which would remain his home--and almost the exclusive subject of his art--until his death a decade later.
Sisley painted numerous views of the woods, rivers and, as in the present painting, pastures. "He sought to express the harmonies that prevail, in all weather and at every time of day, between foliage, water and sky; and he succeeded... He loved river banks; the fringes of woodlands; towns and villages glimpsed through the trees; old buildings swamped in greenery; winter morning sunlight; summer afternoons. He had a delicate way of conveying the effects of foliage" (G. Geffroy, "Sisley," Les Cahiers d'aujourd'hui, Paris, 1923, n.p.). Rather than setting up his easel at the water's edge, as he so often did, in the present canvas Sisley has selected a spot at the head of a road where an open meadow meets a lush forest. A figure on a bicycle rides on the road in the foreground, his costume echoes the brilliant blue of the distant hills and the high summer sky. The middle ground of the composition, beyond the meadow's edge, is structured in a series of horizontal bands: the gentle slope of the hills beyond, the rolling grassy plane and the boulders lining the road. The upper two-thirds of the composition are given over entirely to the bright cerulean sky, scumbled with thick, white clouds. The various sections of the landscape are analyzed through carefully differentiated zones of brushwork: large, vigorous strokes for the swaying grasses in the foreground, for instance, versus a more uniform, delicate touch for the plain beyond.
Christopher Lloyd remarks that Sisley's paintings from 1888 onward, "show him at the height of his powers. All the experience of the previous decades was blended in these canvases which amount to the summation of his output: the paint is richly applied with the impasto more pronounced than in previous works, the brushwork more insistently rhythmical, the execution more rapid, and the colors more vibrant. There is little evidence to show that Sisley painted each canvas at more than one sitting or reworked the surface at later stages. Indeed the alla prima effect of these canvases amounts to a remarkable tour de force" ("Alfred Sisley and the Purity of Vision," Alfred Sisley, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1992, p. 25).