The composition of this painting is carefully constructed; the figures’ heads form a half circle, leading the viewer’s eye along each one individually and then into the distance.
The circular composition and the pose of the recumbent woman are both derived from long-standing ‘classical’ traditions. The subject, however – a peasant family at work – aligns the painting with more modern movements. The Realists, for example, often took subjects from everyday life and painted them on a large-scale.
Lhermitte probably also intended to illustrate the three stages of life: youth, adulthood and old age. The old man in the foreground holds a scythe, a traditional symbol of approaching death. This kind of symbolism and the emphasis on the romantic, idyllic side of peasant life made works of this type extremely popular.
Lhermitte was a well-known painter of peasant life, and Vincent van Gogh – who also wanted to pursue this genre – was one of his greatest admirers.