George Harcourt was a leading member of the group of English artists who came to be known as the British Impressionists. Laura Wortley wrote that the British Impressionists represented a "generation of British artists who had emerged during the 1890s and whose flair for drawing, fascination with light, and handling of 'modern life' subjects in a manner at once direct and yet romantic too, had charmed and delighted a wide British audience at the turn of the century" (op. cit., p. 2). While these artists owed much of their inspiration to the earlier French Impressionists, they infused their works with a distinctly English character. In particular, Harcourt was revered for his broad gestural handling of light. In contrast with John Singer Sargent's grandiose style of portraiture, Harcourt preferred to arrange his figures in more relaxed poses like that of the young girl he paints in Borrowed plumes. Dressed in a robe, the young model is captured by the artist, unaware, as she emerges from the shadows, glancing behind her at the train of her robe. The aerial viewpoint of the painting is suggestive of Sir George Clausen's pastoral views from the early 1900s with which Harcourt was familiar.
Harcourt debuted at the Royal Academy in 1893 the same year as Degas' The Absinthe drinker (coll. Muse d'Orsay, Paris) and Borrowed plumes was exhibited in London at the Royal Academy in 1914. Highly regarded abroad, he also received medals in Paris in 1896, 1900 and 1923.