This hitherto unpublished picture is a moving example of the genre for which Ceruti was most famous and which gave him the sobriquet il Pitocchetto (beggar, vagabond). Drawing on a tradition by northern artists such as Bernhard Keil and Pieter Snayers, Ceruti painted the reality of the life of the pitocchetti with a rare and powerful objectivity. Although no precise chronology can be established, the present picture probably dates from early in the artist's career: the sublte, soft quality of the brushstrokes can be compared with that in A dwarf and that of A boy carrying a wicker basket (both in a private collection; M. Gregori, Giacomo Ceruti, Bergamo, 1982, no. 50). The motif of the street urchin, seen from behind bent over his handywork brings to mind the girl in a similar position in the Seamstresses, a favourite subject by the artist (private collection; ibid., fig. 51b).
Captain George Ferguson, who was one of Nelson's captains, acquired the picture while serving in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. He married Elizabeth Woodhouse (1792-1814) and moved to her family's estate at Aramstone House, Kings Caple, Herefordshire. His wife died in childbirth, leaving the estate to the child, a daughter; she, however, upset her father by her choice of husband, and he is believed to have ungraciously presented her with this painting as a wedding present with the words 'a beggar you are, and beggar you may marry and a beggar you will remain'. However, as both she and her new husband had estates in Herefordshire this did not turn out to be true. The picture passed on by descent to the present owner.
We are grateful to Professor Mina Gregori for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs.