After being awarded first prize in the 1839 Prix de Rome for painting, Ernest Hébert moved to Italy and was quickly captivated by the country he discovered. When he returned to France at the end of 1847, he had his first success at the 1850-1851 Salon with La mal'aria (musée d'Orsay), a painting of peasants on the Pontine Marshes. He travelled to Italy again in 1853-1855 and arrived at San Germano, in the North of the country, on the morning of 28 October 1853. From the window of his rented room, he looked out on to a scene of young girls selling hay - les fienaroles – and decided to stay and paint them. He immediately found models, transformed his bedroom into a studio, and remained there until 7 January 1854.
The finished work was presented in Paris at the 1857 Salon. Being tired of history painting and conventional studio painting, Hébert turned to subjects of daily life drawn from the Italian countryside. He had a preference for pensive, dark-eyed girls. This approach had a parallel in the Realist movement of the time despite a certain sentimentalism. In a letter to the landscape artist Jules Dupré, written from San Germano, Hébert explained his new direction: "I want to talk about what led me to do a painting in a run-down inn in the Apennines [...]. I resolved that henceforth I would only paint an object or an event that moved me. I think this is the best way to remain true to oneself as an artist and to tread the path of originality".