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A woman sits in a simple, sparse room, mending a fishing net. The simplicity of the scene is reflected in the painting's clarity and restraint; the translucence of the net showcases the artist's skill and delicacy of her approach. The intimate and inconspicuous picture from the beginning of the twentieth century stands out among the vividly coloured and impressionistic style of many contemporaneous paintings. It is understated and unassuming in both subject and style – and yet it says so much.

The Net Mender

The Net Mender 1899–1900

Marianne Stokes (1855–1927)

City of London Corporation

Marianne Stokes (née Preindlsberger) was one of the leading female artists in Victorian England. Born in Austria, she married the English painter Adrian Scott Stokes in 1884 and the couple travelled widely throughout Europe. This picture was probably painted after a visit to the Netherlands in 1900, when Marianne made studies of villagers and their daily lives.

The scene is reminiscent of two things. First, Alfred Stieglitz's photograph The Net Mender (1894). In an 1899 article, Stieglitz, one of the most influential photographers of the early twentieth century, declared it his favourite of his own images: 'It expresses the life of a young Dutch woman: every stitch in the mending of the fishing net, the very rudiment of her existence … All her hopes are concentrated in this occupation – it is her life.'

1894, carbon print by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946)

The Net Mender

1894, carbon print by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946)

Stokes's muted, pared-back picture offers the same subject but through the female gaze. In her vision, women's work is fundamental to society rather than being what defines her, as in Stieglitz's interpretation. Without the contribution of the humble net mender, the fishing villages could not survive.

The work is also evocative of earlier paintings, specifically Dutch old masters of the seventeenth century, which often showed women at work in surroundings that suggested humble living and personal spirituality. Through The Net Mender, Stokes, perhaps inadvertently, is speaking back to the often forgotten 'old mistresses' of the Dutch golden age – further reinforced by the painting's soft golden hue.

Elizabeth Scott, Head of Guildhall Galleries, City of London Corporation

The Net Mender by Marianne Stokes is available to buy as a print from the Art UK Shop

A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour