At the end of October 1874, Sisley moved from Louveciennes to Marly-Le-Roi, where he lived until 1877. He painted nearly every aspect of Marly-Le-Roi and its environs, and the works of this period represent some of Sisley's greatest landscapes.
Sisley was especially attracted to river scenes, and in 1875 he made seven pictures of the Seine near Port-Marly, a portion of the river which was also depicted by Pissarro in 1872 and by the early photographer Henri Bevan beginning in 1870. The present picture is one of three closely associated views which Sisley executed of men dredging the river at Bougival during the spring of 1875. The dredging was done to clear a channel in the river for the barge traffic which ran all the way from Le Havre to Paris via Rouen. The sand from the dredging was deposited on the banks of the river, and later sold to building contractors and gardeners. The three related paintings differ slightly in vantage point; and the present work includes the smokestack of the small tannery factory in the distance, which is omitted in the other two pictures. In the 1870's, the Impressionists often painted the countryside west of Paris, depicting not only the new leisure activities which it provided to daytrippers from Paris but also its rapid transformation by modern industry. More so than any of the other Impressionists, Sisley was fascinated by the economic life of the region around the river.
Le quai à sable provides a superlative demonstration of Sisley's technique. The palette of the picture is rich and deep, especially the blues of the water at the right; and the light haze in the sky is rendered with great naturalistic fidelity. The careful attention to color tonalities is typical of Sisley's work from the early 1870's, while the sketchy application of the paint anticipates the artist's style later in the decade. The energetic brushwork reveals Sisley's concern for the articulation of the surfaces of his paintings. As he told his friend Tavernier:
To give life to the work of art is certainly one of the most necessary tasks of the true artist. Everything must serve this end: form, color, surface.... You see that I am in favor of a variation of surface within the same picture. This does not correspond with contemporary opinion, but I believe it to be correct, particularly when it is a question of rendering a light effect. Because when the sun lets certain parts of a landscape appear soft, it lifts others into sharp relief. These effects of light which have an almost material expression in nature must be rendered in material fashion on the canvas. (quoted in R. Goldwater and M. Treves, Artists on Art from the XIV to the XX Century, London, 1947, pp. 308-310)