The present work, which originally belonged to Gertrud Dubi-Müller, the sister of the famous Swiss collector Josef Müller and important collector and friend to artists in her own right, was drawn in three basic shapes of light and dark--head, blouse and skirt--against a shaded background, Femme agenouillée depicts a woman washing clothes on the bank of a stream. In their 1983 catalogue for Georges Seurat Zeichnungen (op. cit.), Erich Franz and Bernd Growe dated the present drawing circa 1881. In its powerful description of back-breaking rural labor, John Rewald, who examined the work in the 1970s, pointed out that the subject of the present work represents the distaff counterpart to Moissonneur ("Harvester"), a drawing Seurat executed and dated '1881,' in which he employed similar formal means on a nearly identically sized sheet of quality-grade laid paper (Hauke, no. 456).
Having completed his year of obligatory military service in November 1880, Seurat decided not to return to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris nor take classes elsewhere. Instead he rented a studio in early 1881 with Amand-Edmond Jean (known as Aman-Jean), whom he had befriended at the Ecole. Aman-Jean later reminisced about this time with Seurat: "It's drawing, thoroughly understood, that put Seurat on the right path" (quoted in R. L. Herbert et al, Georges Seurat, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1991, p. 377). Indeed, during this early phase in his career Seurat drew incessantly, quickly filling pocket-sized sketchbooks that he carried everywhere he went, drawing figures in the casual, naturalistic poses in which he encountered them. Back in the studio he was already realizing on larger sheets the nearly mature manner for which he is best-known, in which he rendered forms by means of densely hatched contrasts of light and shade.
Seurat and Aman-Jean spent the summer and early autumn of 1881 painting in Pontaubert, a town near Avallon in the Yonne region of Burgundy. Seurat took with him a small sketchbook, identified as number 'III' among four such early carnets whose contents have remained intact, which was sold at Christie's London (6 February 2003, lot 416). Inside this sketchbook Seurat noted his traveling itinerary; he then entered the first sketches while awaiting departure from the railway station in Paris and during the train trip. Once he arrived in Pontaubert he added numerous studies of people working in the fields, including two pages that show laundresses bent over their work. There are also laborers seen resting, sketches of farm animals, and townspeople on the streets of Pontaubert, interspersed with landscape studies. Evidence of the artist's growing interest in the application of scientific color theory to painting is a notation, probably done from memory, of Ogden Rood's chromatic wheel, with which he first became acquainted earlier that year. The back inside cover contains a shopping list for the oil colors he preferred to use at this time.
Seurat's trip to Pontaubert had been significant in his development as an artist, for during this time he moved completely beyond the constrictions of his academic training, and, in the naturalism of rural life, found subjects that were meaningful to him, as Millet and Pissarro had done before him. Using sketches in Carnet III as a guide, it is likely that Seurat drew the present Femme agenouillée, as well as the above-mentioned Moissonneur, in his studio following his return to Paris on 8 October.
By the time he had sat down to work on this sheet, Seurat was already the master of a distinctive style of drawing. Dissatisfied with the precise classical contours and carefully delineated shading he had been taught in the Ecole, he now depicted his subjects and their settings by juxtaposing masses of light and shade, abstracting and simplifying his forms, placing strongly characterized silhouettes against the light, or conversely as here, glowing forms against a dark ground. Seurat developed the summary hatching in the carnet studies into a more varied and elaborate handling on the larger sheets with repeated, overlaid strokes of Conté crayon; in the present drawing Seurat has used this flexible technique to suggested the vertical reeds that line the bank, and even the splashing of water as the woman goes about her task. By eliminating gratuitous detail, Seurat has imbued the figure of the laundress with a monumental stillness, as if she were fixed in time. Robert L. Herbert has noted that "in his drawings of 1881-1883 Seurat first revealed his astonishing early maturity" (in Seurat Drawings and Paintings, New Haven, 2001, p. 19), and John Russell has further pointed out that "Seurat was...in his drawings the master of a fully developed and entirely original style, before he had painted a single picture that could be called his own" (Seurat, London, 1965, p. 84).