The painting depicts the figure of a man slumped in death. The public and press saw the painting as a justified criticism of the Poor Law, which forced paupers to break stones to repair roads in return for food and shelter.
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858, instead of a title the painting was accompanied by a catalogue entry quoting Thomas Carlyle's (1795-1881) 'Sartor Resartus':
'Hardly-entreated Brother! For us thy back was so bent, for us were thy straight limbs and fingers so deformed: thou wert our Conscript, on whom the lot fell, and fighting our battles wert so marred. For in thee too lay a god-created Form, but it was not to be unfolded: encrusted must it stand with the thick adhesions and defacements of labour; and thy body, like thy soul, was not to know freedom.'
The original frame was inscribed with a line from Tennyson's poem 'A Dirge': 'Now is done the long day's work'; the painting was exhibited under this title in Birmingham in 1861.
The exhibition history of the painting is occasionally uncertain. A note attached to the back of the painting by the artist, dated 18th May 1884, reads: 'The stonebreaker was, I think, exhibited at the RA in 1858, also at Natl Exbn. at Dublin and again at Philadephia' (Birmingham files).
The first owner of this painting, Viscount Powerscourt, owned another Wallis painting,'Henry Marten in Chepstow Gaol', also exhibited in Dublin in 1865. A smaller version of the painting from the collection of Jospeh Dixon was sold at Sotheby's Belgravia on 19th March 1979 (lot 18).