Bernard painted Les porteuses d'eau following his move in November of 1893 to Cairo, where he was to live until 1904. He initially stayed in the ancient palace of Ingu-Hanem, and then moved in with a Lebanese family by the name of Saati. Supported by a pension of 100 francs a month given to him by the Comte Antoine de la Rochefoucauld, he was finally able to rent part of the old Bahari Palace in the Arab quarter of Cairo, where he "donned Arab dress, and devoted himself to painting" (exh. cat., Emile Bernard 1868-1941, A Pioneer of Modern Art, Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim, 1990, p. 222).
Bernard was particularly taken with the motif of female water carriers during his stay at Cairo, painting them on several occasions: Femmes au bord du fleuve (Luthi, no. 468; Private Collection), Porteuses d'eau (Luthi, no. 469; Private Collection), and most significantly, Femmes au bord du Nil (Luthi, no. 568; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille).
The present painting clearly shows the influence of ancient Eygptian art on Bernard. As Robert Goldwater has commented on the work of Cézanne, with whom Bernard worked closely until the two artists quarreled in 1891:
The clarity of the Egyptian technique, its rhythmic alternation of bodily contour and intervening space, its unifying harmony of proportion which allowed him both the "mystery" of which [the artist] was so fond, and a grace without softness, all these appealed to the painter's sense of style. (R. Waterford, Paul Gauguin, New York, no date, p. 110)
In the present work, the bold alignment of the figures, the combination of profile and frontal views, the firm gestures and long robes, and the clearly delineated planes of color recall the intaglio reliefs of the temples along the Nile to which Bernard would have been exposed during his stay at Cairo. Gauguin once declared, "Have always before you the Persians, the Cambodians, and a little of the Egyptians" (quoted in ibid., p. 110); and works like his Ta Matete of 1892 (Wildenstein, no. 476; Kunstmuseum, Basel) reveal a very similar source of inspiration to the present work.