Dating from circa 1884, A pas tremblants is from a period of Seurat's oeuvre often referred to as his 'Early Maturity'. For it was during the first years of the 1880s that the simple and reductive line drawings that had formed the bulk of his works went through a sudden transformation, evolving almost spontaneously into what is still considered some of the most formidable draughtsmanship ever. Influenced by various artists, and also by theories on light and colour, Seurat had invented a visual idiom that tackled many of what he perceived as problems in capturing light on paper. Signac would later refer to his friend Seurat's advances in this area: 'Seurat's studies resulted in his well-considered and fertile theory of contrasts: a theory to which all his work was thereafter subjected. He applied it first to chiaroscuro: with the simplest of resources, the white of a sheet of Ingres paper and the black of a conté crayon, skilfully graded or contrasted, he executed... the most beautiful painters' drawings in existence' (Signac, quoted in J. Russell, Seurat, London, 1965, p. 16). This study of contrasts is especially clear in A pas tremblants, where Seurat has expressly manipulated the dense chiaroscuro in such a way as to emphasise the volume and bulk of the figure. Thus, the dark background fades discreetly into light towards the edges of the garments, lending them a further depth and darkness, giving them a greater sense of solidity. He has emphasised the contrast between light and dark, and thus manipulates, through the use of subtle gradations, the visible effects, controlling with masterly aplomb what the eye and the mind perceive.
As is hinted by the title of this work, A pas tremblants shows a figure huddled, as though seeking shelter. There is a distinct feel of social realism entirely in keeping with many of the themes of modern life that Seurat explored in his art. Heavily, and often directly, influenced by Naturalist literature and by Millet's art, Seurat sought to depict the real face of modern existence. This scene resembles a realist word-landscape written by his friend Huysmans, a view from Paris published only a few years before A pas tremblants was executed. In it, Huysmans describes dusk falling over the country and the factories around, but takes painstaking trouble also to describe a beggar's progress through the twilight: 'seul, dans le chemin poudreux, le mendiant, le mendigo, comme l'appelle la mouche, retourne au gîte, suant, éreinté, fourbu, gravissant péniblement la côte, suçant son brûle-gueule pour longtemps vide' (J.-K. Huysmans, Croquis Parisiens, 1880).
It is a mark of the quality of this drawing that one of its earliest owners was the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, famous in his age, but who unwittingly left as a legacy two art historical terms that have outlived the influence of his own writings, 'Fauvism' and 'Cubism'.