Gainsborough depicts a young boy standing in the woods at dawn. Raising one hand to his hair, the boy wears a nightshirt or shift, painted in bold loose strokes that suggest its ragged condition. His toes poking through battered shoes, the boy appears to have discarded a red garment on the ground beside him. A tabby cat peers out from the darkness at the boy’s side, its wariness in marked contrast to the boy’s unguarded reverie.
Gainsborough borrowed many elements of the picture’s composition from Murillo’s The Christ Child as the Good Shepherd
, which he copied after seeing a version of the painting at Christie’s in 1778. Both Murillo’s devotional picture and The Met’s genre scene depict a young male figure, shown at full length, with his proper left hand raised and right hand lowered in the direction of an animal that stands at his side. The landscape backgrounds are likewise divided in both paintings between wooded and open passages.A Boy with a Cat—Morning
was in Gainsborough’s studio at his death and appeared in his posthumous sale in 1789, listed for a price of 250 guineas and given the title it is displayed under at The Met. Unsold at the time, the picture soon entered the collection of the playwright and parliamentarian Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose interest in similar subject matter is attested in John Hoppner’s portrait, also at The Met, of Mrs. Sheridan and her child in the guise of rural peasants (65.203
). At the sale and for nearly a century afterward, A Boy with a Cat—Morning
was displayed with a pendant, depicting children at a cottage fire, that has been untraced since 1885. Both works were engraved in mezzotint by Charles Turner in 1809.Fancy Pictures:
As Gainsborough’s borrowings reveal, Murillo was a key figure in the emergence of the English “fancy picture,” of which both this painting and Cottage Children (The Wood Gatherers)
) at The Met are major examples. Murillo’s famous pictures of beggar boys and flower sellers were painted with a Northern European clientele in mind, and a copy of one of his paintings of young beggars was in England by 1658. Denoting a picture based on “fancy,” or the artist’s imagination, eighteenth-century British fancy pictures depicted subjects ranging from elderly mendicants to comely urban vendors, but they most often feature children from the lower classes. Gainsborough’s fancy pictures represent a high point of the genre, in which his study of seventeenth-century painting, his landscape practice, and his sustained engagement with the rural poor joined to produce some of the paintings most admired by his contemporaries. Sir Joshua Reynolds singled out this aspect of Gainsborough’s production in his Discourses
, writing: "In his fancy-pictures, when he had fixed on his subject of imitation, whether it was the mean and vulgar form of a wood cutter, or a child of an interesting character, as he did not attempt to raise the one, so neither did he lose any of the natural grace of the other; such a grace, and such an elegance, as are more frequently found in cottages than in courts."
As Reynolds remarks indicate, the appeal of the impoverished as pictorial subjects may have been primarily aesthetic, promising authentic and natural charm to an urban audience glutted on artifice. At the same time, British representations of the poor speak to a welter of social anxieties, benevolent impulses, and cross-class fantasizing. Gainsborough painted his own daughters in the guise of rural laborers, indicating the degree to which the lines separating fancy pictures and portraits could be blurred.
Jack Hill, the apple-cheeked model of The Met’s painting, appears to have been an important catalyst for the development of Gainsborough’s late fancy pictures. G. W. Fulcher, Gainsborough’s nineteenth-century biographer, describes the relationship between painter and model as follows: "During the summer months, Gainsborough had lodgings at Richmond, and spent his mornings and evenings in sketching its picturesque scenery. When in his walks he saw any peasant children that struck his fancy, he would send them to his painting room, leaving with their parents very substantial proofs of his liberality. On one occasion he met with a boy named John Hill, on whom nature had bestowed a more than ordinary share of good looks, with an intelligence rarely found in a woodman’s cottage. Gainsborough looked at the boy with a painter’s eye, and, acting as usual from the impulse of the moment, offered to take him home, and provide for his future welfare. Jack Hill, as Gainsborough always called him, was at once arrayed in his Sunday best and sent with the gentleman, laden with as many virtuous precepts as would ‘have filled a copy-book.’ Mrs. Gainsborough was delighted with the boy, and the young ladies equally rejoiced in such a good-looking addition to their establishment—Mrs. Fischer [the artist’s daughter Mary], indeed, talked of adopting him. But, whether like the wild Indian of the prairie, Jack pined for the unrestrained freedom of his native woods—the blackberries and the roasted sloes; or, what is more likely, feared chastisement for his many ungrateful doings, after a brief trial, he ran away, and though brought back and forgiven by his kind-hearted master, he willfully threw away a much better chance than Dick Whittington started with, on his romantic journey to the thrice repeated city sovereignty. At Gainsborough's death, his widow kindly procured for Jack an admission into Christ's Hospital. Here we lose sight of the boy; he is, however, immortalized by the Painter's pencil, and amongst all Gainsborough's studies of peasant children, Jack is distinguished by his personal beauty."
With its combination of condescension and attraction to the “unrestrained freedom” of an indigent child, Fulcher’s account aptly evokes the cultural attitude that inspired Gainsborough’s fancy pictures.
Adam Eaker 2020
 For Gainsborough’s copy, now in a private collection, see Martin Postle, Angels & Urchins: The Fancy Picture in 18th-Century British Art
, Nottingham, 1998, pp. 59–60, no. 7.
 Waterhouse 1946, p. 140, no. 13.
 Waterhouse 1946, p. 140, no. 12.
 Tijana Žakula, "The Indecorous Appeal of Beggar Boys: Murillo, de Lairesse and Gainsborough," Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art
, vol. 35, no. 3, 2011, pp. 165–73, see pp. 167–68.
 For an overview, see Postle 1998 (see note 1).
 See Waterhouse 1946, pp. 134–41; and Patricia Crown, “Portraits and Fancy Pictures by Gainsborough and Reynolds: Contrasting Images of Childhood,” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies,
vol. 7, Autumn 1984, pp. 159–67.
 Postle 1998, p. 7.
 For a classic discussion of this material, see John Barrell, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting, 1730–1840
, Cambridge, 1980.
 On this point, see Ann Bermingham, “Daughters and Sisters: Gainsborough’s Portraits of Mary and Margaret,” in Gainsborough’s Family Album,
ed. David H. Solkin, exh. cat., London, 2019, pp. 42–59, especially pp. 48–49.
 G. W. Fulcher, Life of Thomas Gainsborough, R.A.
, London, 1856, pp. 132–33.