In December 1883, Van Gogh returned to his parents' home in Nuenen after a year-long stay in The Hague. During the following two years that he spent at Nuenen before setting out for Antwerp and then for Paris, Van Gogh's principal subject was the local Brabant peasantry. His "guide and counselor" in this work, as he wrote to his brother Theo, was Jean-François Millet, whose powerful paintings of weary laborers Van Gogh deeply admired throughout his career (Letter to Theo 493/400). George Keyes has written, "Having solidified his view of the peasant as the embodiment of universal human values, when he moved to Nuenen working peasants became his major project, and for the artist, they also became the chosen subject of modern art. By making this commitment, Van Gogh allied himself with Millet, Jules Breton, and other French painters of the realist tradition who extolled peasant subject matter" (Van Gogh Face to Face: The Portraits, exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000, pp. 39-40).
After devoting the first months of his stay at Nuenen to depicting weavers at work on their looms, Van Gogh began his studies of peasants in earnest in October 1884. Over the course of the next six months, he made a long series of heads--several dozen in total--that represent male and female countryfolk, viewed in profile or full-face against a dark background. His letters indicate that he saw his subjects not so much as individuals but as examples of a rural type, with physiognomic characteristics ("full and Millet-like") that reflected their close ties to the cycles of nature and the harsh conditions under which they lived (Letter to Theo 451/372). In January or February 1885, Van Gogh broadened his studies to include interior scenes of peasants at work in their cottages. Within only a few weeks, he had produced more than twenty paintings and drawings of full-length figures absorbed in domestic chores: making baskets and sweeping the floor, darning socks and knitting, and peeling, cooking, and eating potatoes. These laid the groundwork for his most ambitious undertaking in Nuenen and the masterpiece of his early career, The Potato Eaters, completed in early May (De la Faille, no. 82; Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam). Rainer Metzger and Ingo Walther have written, "The Potato Eaters was a synthesis of countless studies of peasants' heads, of people absorbed in work and handicrafts, which Van Gogh painted that winter in the cottages of poor people in the village. This time, the series approach resulted in a final triumph" (Vincent Van Gogh, Cologne, 1998, p. 46).
One of Van Gogh's principal concerns in these interior scenes was the treatment of light. In early March 1885, he mentioned a group of figure studies done by lamplight: "Nowadays I paint... even at night by lamplight, in the cottages, when I can hardly distinguish anything on my palette, to capture if possible at least something of the peculiar effects of artificial light at night with, for instance, a large shadow cast on the wall" (Letter to Theo 484/395). There are at least six figure studies that feature this sort of nocturnal effect, to which Van Gogh would return in The Potato Eaters (De la Faille, nos. 126a, 145, 152, 171, 171a, and 365). By mid-March, Van Gogh had turned his attention to a new lighting effect: "I am brooding over a couple of larger, more elaborate things... namely figures against the light of a window. I have studies of heads for it, against the light as well as turned toward the light, and I have worked several times already on complete figures: winding yarn, sewing, or peeling potatoes. Full face and profile, it is a difficult effect" (Letter to Theo 485/396).
The present painting is one of three oils that show a woman posed in this way, against a brightly illuminated window (also De la Faille, nos. 71-72; Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam and Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo). In all three, the rectangle of sunlight is placed centrally in the picture, surrounding and almost obliterating the features of the seated woman. Her hands, in contrast, are picked out by the brilliant light, imbuing her daily toil with a sense of almost religious importance that recalls Van Gogh's sanctification of manual labor in his description of The Potato Eaters: "I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labor and that they have thus honestly earned their food" (Letter to Theo 497/404).