For the subject of this painting, Daumier turned to the eponymous fable by Jean de La Fontaine: while two thieves are arguing over a stolen ass, a third one steals it from them.
The painter emphasises the fierce, violent struggle and the wild, grimacing face of the thief on the ground. The original inspiration was a street fight published by Daumier in a lithograph which appeared in Le Charivari on 23 August 1845.
Here, the light accentuates the heaving, grappling forms. The lively rhythm, and dull colouring of the composition bring out Daumier's baroque skills. In the background, hidden in the shadows, the flight of the third thief on the ass is roughly sketched in.
The Musée d'Orsay also has a preparatory drawing of this painting. Even more than the final work, this reveals the vigorous design and the modelling of the shapes, and displays Daumier's sculptural talents, defined by Delacroix as: "a blend of Michelangelo and Goya". This same subject was later used for a lithograph by Gustave Doré, and in a painting by Cézanne, but without the dynamism and intensity so characteristic of Daumier.