La petite main is an enigmatic and evocative example from an important series of paintings on the theme of the seamstress that Vuillard executed during the 1890s, while he was associated with the Nabi circle which resulted in his most challenging and sophisticated work. The works from this period typically depict women at work in the corset and the dress-making atelier that Vuillard's mother ran in their home from 1878 until 1898.
For the first major commission of his career, a series of six decorative panels executed for Paul Desmarais in 1892, he opted to include two scenes of dressmakers in their workshop. Paintings and drawings on the same theme dominated two of his most important early exhibitions, at the gallery of Revue Blanche offices in late 1891 and at the Barc de Bouteville gallery the following spring. With their intricate tapestries of color and pattern, the seamstress paintings are among the finest examples of Vuillard's distinctive interpretation of Nabi tenets.
La petite main depicts an isolated female figure in a turquoise blouse, working with a bright yellow garment or swathe of fabric. A pale light enters the room from the rear through a window or glass door covered by a sheer striped curtain, illuminating part of the woman's face and hands. The remainder of the room appears shadowy and impenetrable. The woman's features are only faintly defined, and her identity remains uncertain; the picture is a portrait not of an individual but of a worker, hushed and absorbed. The space of the picture is shallow and ambiguous, the play of patterns dense and richly charged, and the overall effect of the image intimate but unsettling. As Elizabeth Easton has written: "The paintings of women sewing stand out in Vuillard's oeuvre for their decorative beauty, their complex construction, and their sense of intimacy... [They] are icons of the inwardness that informed Vuillard's personal approach to Symbolism. Objects do not stand for specific otherworldly concepts in these paintings but through tightly woven space dominated by busy patterns they evoke a feeling of intimacy. Pattern is the unifying visual characteristic of these compositions, as might befit a body of work that has as its subject the working of cloth... Similarly, figures themselves, as flat, dark, and solid silhouettes, become decorative motifs... These pictures also serve as metaphors for Vuillard's concept of himself as a painter. In depicting women conjoined with their surroundings much like the patterns of the objects they sew, Vuillard in some way reflects the union between the artist and the work he creates" (The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1990, p. 55).
The sense of intense absorption that characterizes Vuillard's seamstress paintings is reminiscent of interiors by Vermeer and Chardin that the artist would have known from the Louvre. Indeed, a page from Vuillard's journal dated November 1888 includes a sketch of a painting by Johannes Vermeer and references to works by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jan Steen, as well as several original drawings of women working by lamplight around a table.