The early 1880s, when the present gouache was painted, was a critical period of transition for Pissarro. His landscape production, so characteristic of the previous decade, 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, closer to Cézanne's constructivist stroke than to the free, painterly handling of the Impressionist idiom. Finally, his technical practice became more complex, involving greater studio work and increased preparatory drawing, and he began a series of works in other media, including watercolors, gouaches, and prints. Richard Brettell has described the early 1880s as "the most extensive period of pictorial experimentation in Pissarro's career," concluding, "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, the 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).
One of the largest and most significant groups of paintings that Pissarro made during the 1880s depict peasants working in the fields, engaged in everyday chores, or resting after their labors. These works 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, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, 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 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, explaining 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). Likewise, Joachim Pissarro has written:
"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).
Pissarro was not alone among the Impressionists in his embrace of figure painting during the early 1880s. Around the same time, Renoir began to enlarge and classicize his figures, increasingly focusing on society portraits and on timeless themes such as the female nude. In the case of both artists, the explanation for this shift in subject matter was partly commercial. Renoir was cultivating new haut bourgeois patrons such as the publisher Georges Charpentier and his wife; Pissarro, in turn, was heeding the advice of the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to vary his production in the face of a struggling art market, adding genre paintings to his landscape repertoire. More broadly, Pissarro's scenes of peasant life reflect the Impressionists' widespread abandonment around 1880 of overtly contemporary subject matter. Brettell has concluded, "Pissarro's technical experimentation and his prolonged study of...the human figure must be seen as part of a general reaction against [modern] landscape painting by the advanced painters of the 1870s who contributed so significantly to its independent history" (in op. cit., p. 197).