In the summer of 1877 Sargent travelled to Cancale, a fishing village on Brittany's north coast, in search of a figure subject to paint for the Salon. He knew Brittany well: in 1875, his family passed the summer in St-Enogat, near Cancale, and he had spent Christmas with the painter J. Carroll Beckwith in neighbouring St Malo. He was attracted by the village's dramatic location on the Bay of Mont St. Michel and by the picturesque appeal of its oyster beds, where 'at low tide the sands are laid bare for miles, and groups of oyster cultivators, chiefly old women and girls, are hard at work'. He was also influenced in his choice of subject by the continuing popularity of paintings of Breton fisherfolk with both the bourgeois amateurs and the official arbieters of taste. For example, at the 1874 Salon, which Sargent certainly saw, Augustin Feyen-Perrin's Retour de la pecha aux huitres par les grandes marees a Cancale was awarded a medal.
But in Oyster Gatherers of Cancale Sargent eschewed Feyen-Perrin's theatricality. His figures represent neither the pathetic poor, so popular in rural genre pieces of the 1870s, nor the noble peasants that were Millet's legacy. Rather, his two versions of the subject - his final preparatory study and a larger work, destined for the Salon - show Sargent navigating between the seeming spontaneity of the growing realist impulse and the gravity of the Salon tradition, between the younger generation's concerns for informailty and naturalism and academic standards of control and finish. They are also his first essays in the kind of subject picture that would engage him all his life. The Breton women in their kerchiefs and sabots are the forerunners of the Venetian bread stringers and Bedouin tribespeople who populate his later genre work.