Pelez was part of a movement in art dealing with social issues. Wanting to “tell the story of Paris’s poor,” he painted and denounced the bleak underside of the belle époque. Critics spoke of him as “one of the most . . . affecting portrayers of poverty . . . most certainly the one whose sympathy for those classes suffering in our midst is expressed with the most deeply moving power.” Ironically, he was ranked among the “indefatigable eulogists of begging.”
In the same vein as that of Zola, his work’s heartrending naturalism expands on the stories and novels depicting the society of the time written by Dickens (Oliver Twist, 1837) and Andersen (The Little Match Girl, 1845), while it simultaneously brings to mind the characters of Gavroche (Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862) and Rémi (Malot, Nobody’s Boy, 1878). The child dressed in rags can refer to paintings by Spanish painters: Murillo, Ribera or Velázquez.
The artist was not attempting to induce pity through oversentimentality; on the contrary, he strove for realism. He preferred using vagabond children he happened upon while out walking as models rather than studio professionals. The cigar on the ground and the cigarette between the boy’s lips break with the traditional image of childhood. He takes a break to enjoy what the middle-class adults or dandies who pass him by without a glance leave behind.