In the 1880s, figure painting formed the basis for some of Pissarro's most important work. Unlike his works of the previous decade in which the background and figures shared equal emphasis, Pissarro now focused on the figure enlarging it within the composition. During this period, Pissarro portrayed his models as they went about their daily rituals: knitting, chatting, or, in the case of the model in Jeune paysanne à sa toilette, arranging her hair.
Since coming into contact with the younger artists Paul Signac and Georges Seurat in 1885, Pissarro had been struggling to find a painterly means to record his perceptions and to "replace his instinctive approach to nature by a rigorous observation of the laws of colors and contrasts" (J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. 511). His experiments with pointillism and divisionism did not entirely satisfy him and, in a letter to his son Lucien dated 6 September 1888 Pissarro wrote, "I think continually of some way of painting without the dot. I hope to achieve this but I have not been able to solve the problem of dividing the pure tone without harshness...How can one combine the purity and simplicity of the dot with the fullness, suppleness, liberty, spontaneity and freshness of sensation postulated by our impressionist art? This is the question which preoccupies me, for the dot is meager, lacking in body, diaphanous, more monotonous than simple...I am constantly pondering this question, I shall go to the Louvre to look at certain painters who are interesting from this point of view" (J. Rewald, ed., Camille Pissarro, letters to his son Lucien, Boston, 2002, pp. 131 and 132).
In place of the dot Pissarro began using small commas of color, sometimes pure from the tube or with a small amount of white added, to create a lively and luminous surface. He introduced an intermediate element between two tints that he called 'passage'. This technique had only recently been perfected when Pissarro painted Jeune paysanne à sa toilette in 1888. In the gouache one can see the technique displayed in the painterly handling of the predominant cool tones of blue and green which are accented with warm tones. Pressed by the art critic Félix Fénéon in February 1889 to elaborate on his new approach Pissarro responded, "I received your letter asking me to give you some technical information on 'passage'. It would be difficult to say anything about this; I am trying at this very moment to master the technique" (letter quoted in ibid., pp. 134-135).
While Durand-Ruel expressed concerns over the salability of Pissarro's new work, Théo van Gogh was more encouraging. As the manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch of Boussod et Valadon he agreed to take some of Pissarro's pictures, including Jeune paysanne à sa toilette which was exhibited in Pissarro's one-man show there in February 1890. At one time, this gouache belonged to Lola and Siegfried Kramarsky, whose collection also included van Gogh's celebrated Portrait of Dr. Gachet (sold Christie's, New York, 15 May 1990 for $82.5 million, the record price for a work of art sold at auction).