Joshua Reynolds’s portrait transforms a sight common to the streets of eighteenth-century London—a child worker lighting torches—into an allegory. “Link boys,” as they were known, were paid a small sum to light fires along London’s streets so that inhabitants could see the way from their doors to their carriages. These youngsters traveled through the city at nightfall and could become victims of abuse. The lack of social status of working-class women and children at the time made them particularly vulnerable to mistreatment in the modernizing city. Rather than romanticizing one of the city’s many street urchins, Reynolds allegorizes the plight of these children, puckish Cupids with wings blackened by their often tragic experience of exploitation— sexual as well as socioeconomic.
Label from Overtime: The Art of Work, March 8–May 17, 2015