In 1872 Pissarro returned to Pontoise in the Val-d'Oise and over the course of the next decade he painted more than three hundred pictures of the town and its surrounding countryside. La gardeuse de vache depicts a pasture near the village of La Roche-Guyon to the northwest of Pontoise. The beauty of the village and its surroundings first drew Pissarro's attention in 1864-1865 when he painted La promenade à ane à La Roche-Guyon (Pissarro and Venturi, no. 45; private collection). He returned to La Roche-Guyon to paint on at least two other occasions in 1867 and in 1874, and at different times Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin and Alfred Sisley each painted there.
The rural solitude of the Val-d'Oise region attracted Pissarro, who sought to focus on "the figures and animals of the true countryside" (quoted in R. Thomson, Camille Pissarro, Impressionism, Landscape and Rural Labour, London, 1990, p. 40). Using as models the peasants and transient day laborers that were his close neighbors, he approached the figure in a new and direct manner, devoid of sentimentality. His friend Theodore Duret had written to him encouragingly in December 1873, "I still believe that rustic nature, with its fields and animals, is what best suites your talent. You do not have Sisley's decorative feeling, or Monet's fantastic eye, but you have what they do not have: an intimate and deep feeling for nature as well as a powerful brushstroke, so that a beautiful picture by you is something with an absolute presence...Go your own way, towards rural nature: thus you will explore a new avenue, and will go further and higher than any master"(quoted in J. Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, New York, 1993, p. 143).
La gardeuse de vache exemplifies Pissarro's remarkable capacity to communicate the innate nobility of his subjects as they went about their mundane tasks. Painted at the height of the day in the early spring, the bright palette and interplay between the figure and the cow imbue the painting with a lively mood, far from the reality of the impoverished drudgery a cowherd's life. Pissarro's technique furthers the sense of naturalism in the scene. Layering paint on the surface, Richard Bretell notes that "the sheer physicality of form--its weight, mass and proximity--became Pissarro's overriding concern...and was expressed by the material presence of paint itself" (Pissarro and Pontoise, The Painter in a Landscape, London, 1990, p. 165). In 1877 Duret wrote, "(Pissarro is) the one in whose work one finds in the most accentuated manner the point of view of the purely naturalistic painters. He sees nature in simplifying it and through its most permanent aspect...His canvases communicate to the highest degree the sensation of space and of solidity; they set free an impression of melancholy" (quoted in J. Rewald, Pissarro, New York, 1989, p. 86).