Set in mid-18th Century England, this is a characteristic example of Redgrave's moralising genre scenes. The key to the picture lies in the loosely worked picture over the fireplace - an illustration of the parable of Dives and Lazarus (the rich man at his table, the poor man at his gate) - indicating that the country cousins have come in the hope of getting some help from their rich relations.
Redgrave's observation is clearly satirical. The rich wife is finely dressed and displays her rings prominently, but she is overweight and neither she nor her daughter has been blessed with good looks. The country cousins are more sympathetic and well groomed, but their clothes are plain and even their dog appears to lack breeding. Their visit is made even more uncomfortable by the attitude of their richer relations. No-one rises to greet the visitors. The daughter whispers maliciously into the ear of her mother, who casts a haughty glance in the direction of the young boy. The husband reading the 'Public Ledger' at the window was characterised by the Spectator as 'a good specimen of the sneer which recoils upon the satirizer himself' (quoted in Casteras and Parkinson, p.131).
Redgrave wrote in his 'Autobiography', published in the Art Journal in 1854, 'it is one of my most gratifying feelings that many of my best efforts in art have aimed at calling attention to the trials and struggles of the poor and the oppressed' (Art Journal, 1854, p.320); and when this picture was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1848, the critic of the Athenaeum recognised that the artist was 'once more arguing by the means of Art for the redress of social wrong' (quoted in Hamlyn 1993, p.58). The rich colour and loose handling is typical of the works he produced during the 1840s, in spite of which the Illustrated London News criticised the painting for its hard colouring, declaring that it was 'hardly a good specimen of Mr Redgrave's manner' (quoted in Casteras and Parkinson 1988, p.131). However the same critic also commented that the picture was 'less painful in its story, and [had] less of a rich and poor about it than the subjects usually chosen by Mr Redgrave.' Some critics seem to have missed the picture's moral message altogether, and regarded the meeting of the two sides of the family merely as unexpected and fraught with embarrassment.
Susan P. Casteras and Ronald Parkinson (eds), Richard Redgrave 1804-1888, exhibition catalogue, Victoria and Albert Musuem, London 1988, pp.131-2, no.89, reproduced p.132.
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's Gift - British Art for the Nation 1847, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.58, illustrated p.58.