Shown at the Royal Academy in 1876, The Widower (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney) was the second of the important social realist pictures that Fildes painted early in his career, succeeeding the well- known Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (Royal Holloway and Bedford New College) which had been exhibited two years previously. As Julian Treuherz has written in the catalogue of the Hard Times exhibition (loc. cit.), 'In .. the Casuals, one of the most striking figures is that of the man cradling his bare-legged child in his arms, whilst his little girls cling to their sick mother. The model for the man gave Fildes the idea for The Widower. "I was painting in a rough-looking fellow with his child. He got tired of standing, so I suggested he should rest. He took a chair behind the screen. I went on with something else - no movement reached me, so I peeped behind the screen and there I saw the motive for 'The Widower'. The child had fallen asleep, and there was this great, rough fellow, possibly with only a copper in the world, caressing his child, watching it lovingly and smoothing its curls with his hand."'
Treuherz goes on to link the present sketch with a comment by Fildes' friend George Augustus Sala. 'On seeing The Widower at the Academy, ... Sala wrote, "it touched me very deeply indeed .. You bold young geniuses lash in your colour so audaciously that we weak-eyed fogies are puzzled, sometimes, to know whether there is any drawing underneath the paint at all. Well, you may say, Rembrandt painted with his thumb and Goya ... painted the Dos de Mayo with a fork"' ... the dashingly handled sketch of the widower and baby demonstrates what Sala meant. All the studies show the artist experimenting with different positions; in this sketch, the baby's head does not fall back in the pathetic manner of the finished work, and in others the baby is on the father's other knee.'
Like ours, the other sketches referred to here appeared at Fildes' studio sale (lots 18, 20, 26) and were illustrated in the Art Annual for 1895. There is also a replica of the finished painting, painted in 1902, in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.