Vincenzo Gemito, one of the premier Italian sculptors of the 19th century, was essentially self-taught. Discovered on the foundling hospital's doorstep and adopted by a poor artisan, Gemito got work in a sculptor's studio when he was a boy. In his youth, he worked for two local sculptors, Emanuele Caggiano and Stanislao Lista, but neither seems to have had much stylistic influence on him. Gemito's realistic representations of Neapolitan street life marked a dramatic shift from earlier artists' sentimentalizing. His sculpture was so immediately alive and strong that he became famous at a very early age. Gemito sold a statue to the city of Naples when he was sixteen years old; and he was only twenty-one years old when he was commissioned to model the portrait of Giuseppe Verdi. Gemito's Pescatorello (Neapolitan Fisherboy) brought him acclaim at the 1877 Paris Salon, and he stayed in Paris for three years.
Gemito was also an immensely gifted draughtsman. After completing an important public commission, the portrait of Charles V, in 1887, he suffered a mental collapse and gave up sculpture almost entirely: he withdrew to one room, concentrating on drawing and seeing few friends. Around 1909 Gemito resumed sculpting, incorporating Hellenistic influences into his work, inspired by the works of art that the diggings of Pompeii and Herculaneum had brought to light and which were exhibited in the Archeological Museum in Naples. His sculpture demonstrated a delicate sensitivity and detail that ultimately derived from his drawings.