A woman encourages a hesitant young girl to present a purse of money to a bedridden couple, who lean forward to express their gratitude. While the mother urges her child to hand the purse to the old man, a nun and two young men wait their turn to extend charity. Jean-Baptiste Greuze portrayed the mother and daughter in fine clothing to emphasize the disparity between their lives and that of the impoverished couple, whose only valuable possession, a sword, is prominently displayed behind them. Greuze was famous for moralizing images like this one, which were meant to illustrate the importance of good deeds and childhood instruction in a domestic setting. In The Charitable Woman, a complex scene that explores a wide range of human expression, he used spontaneous applications of wash to intensify the sense of drama.
Greuze produced The Charitable Woman as a compositional study for a painting of the same name , now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Prior to making this drawing, he made numerous studies of individual figures, such as the Study of the Head of an Old Woman, who is one of the principal characters in this scene. These carefully rendered drawings provide evidence of Greuze's working methods and testify to his careful preparation.