Vaches s'abreuvant dans un ruisseau depicts a peasant woman leading five cows to water on a farm on the outskirts of Osny, a small village about twenty-five miles northwest of Paris where Pissarro lived from December 1882 until April 1884. The farm was already in existence in the late seventeenth century, when it was known as La Seigneurie; in Pissarro's day, it was called Le Friche or La Groue and belonged to a farmer named François Soret. Although much of the farm was destroyed in 1940, some of the buildings still stand on the Chemin de la Friche, overlooking the River Viosne. Pissarro painted the present gouache in 1886, two years after he had moved from Osny to Eragny-sur-Epte, some forty kilometers to the north. It was not painted from life, but rather from an oil of the same motif that Pissarro had made in the early months of 1883 (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 702). The landscape is almost identical in the two works, but Pissarro has elaborated the scene in the present version by adding the figure of the peasant and three additional cows. Pissarro had painted another view of the farm du Friche in 1883 (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 701; Christie's, New York, 6 May 2008, lot 48), and he also re-visited this composition following his move to Eragny, using it as the basis for an 1887 fan (Pissarro and Venturi, no. 1640; Musée Pissarro, Pontoise). Gauguin too depicted the farm, during a three-week stay at Osny with his mentor Pissarro in June 1883 (Wildenstein, no. 103; Private collection).
During the three years that separate the oil version of Vaches s'abreuvant from the present gouache, Pissarro's style changed considerably. In 1885, Pissarro met Seurat, the driving force behind Neo-Impressionism, a novel and controversial method based upon the systematic application of paint in tiny strokes, governed by the scientific principles of color theory. By the following year, Pissarro had embraced Neo-Impressionism, which he described as "a new phase in the logical march of Impressionism" (quoted in J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 212). Although he never employed Neo-Impressionist techniques in a wholly doctrinaire manner, he maintained his vocal allegiance to the method until 1889. In the present gouache, for instance, he has structured the composition around repeated contrasts of the complementary colors blue and orange, tempered with passages of green. The paint is methodically laid down in alternately parallel and interlocking strokes to produce an effect of heightened luminosity. The 1883 oil on which the gouache was based, in contrast, retains the subtle tonal gradations and looser, more irregular handling of the Impressionist tradition. This is not the only instance in which Pissarro re-worked an existing composition in his new, Neo-Impressionist style. La Briqueterie Delafolie à Eragny, 1888, for instance, is a Neo-Impressionist replica of the same subject done three years earlier (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, nos. 805 and 826; also compare nos. 659 and 850, and nos. 773 and 819).
A committed anarchist, Pissarro was sympathetic to the ideas of contemporary thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin, who decried the growing tide of agrarian mechanization. Yet Pissarro's images of peasants, which represent one of his most sustained and important themes of the 1880s, carry no overtly moralizing message; they are neither sentimental allegories à la Millet, nor sociological documents of the condition of the peasantry in northern France during the late nineteenth century. Joachim Pissarro has concluded, "No brief or simplistic account can properly circumscribe the rich and varied complexity of these paintings of figures" (ibid., p. 157).