This delightful picture shows a child struggling to decipher a word in a book he holds on his lap, while a faithful pet cat waits patiently at his feet. In Agasse's skillful treatment of each element of the composition - portrait, animal and still-life - the picture stands as a superb example of the artist's work, the undisturbed state of the paint surface allowing one to fully appreciate the artist's draughtmanship.
The model for the child was Lionel Booth, the eldest son of George Booth from whom Agasse took lodgings in 1810. The Booth house at 4 Newman Street, off Oxford Street, London, was in the heart of an artistic quarter with neighbours including Benjamin West, James Ward, George Dawe and Thomas Stothard. This was precisely the environment Agasse craved and, establishing a firm friendship with his landlord, he remained at the house for twenty-five years. As well as being the subjects of an enchanting series of family portraits (some of which were sold by decendants at Christie's, 15 April 1988, lot 70A, and 14 April 1989, lots 36-41), Agasse often used the Booth children as models in genre pictures such as The Flower Cart (see catalogue to the exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, and the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, 1988-89, no. 53, pp. 142-43). A study in black chalk for The Hard Word is in the Cabinet des Dessins, Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva (see fig. 1).
As was not uncommon with Agasse, he produced several autograph versions of The Hard Word, which he also published as a mezzotint engraved by Richard Syer. The only other version known to be on the same scale as the present work was included in the 1988-89 Agasse exhibition as no. 46 (private collection). In his account books, Agasse recorded six versions of the subject: one of the same size as the present work, one without dimensions, and three smaller. It is likely that the picture exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821 (no. 329) was one of the larger versions. Charles Hardy, whose work J.L. Agasse: his Life, his Work, his Friendship (c. 1905) was never published but which survives in manuscript in the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire, Geneva, suggested that 'the original would have been bought by Lord Rivers'.