The son of a general merchant, Cursiter was employed by a printers and lithographers in Edinburgh, where he learned the elements of design and print-making, at the same time as completing his studies at Edinburgh College of Art. In 1913 he was the only Scottish painter to embrace Futurism, and was responsible for bringing the first Futurist exhibition to Scotland through his connection with the Society of Scottish Artists. Inspired by the technique, he produced seven Futurist canvases that year, which are still among his most discussed works.
In 1916 Cursiter married Orcadian Phyllis Hourston, a gifted violinist. Almost immediately after their wedding, Cursiter was sent to the Somme. He was shortly invalided out of the trenches, but went on to develop a revolutionary technique of map-making in France, which earned him a military O.B.E. After World War I, Cursiter was earning a living as an artist and designer when he was offered the job of Keeper of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh in 1925.
The present work depicts Phyllis Cursiter, seated by a mirror, watching a woman at a piano. A preparatory oil sketch of the same subject sold at Christie's, Scotland, 27 April 1989, lot 585.