The present picture is one of the earliest of Lavery's 'girls/women in black'. Its motif, a young woman teasing her dog, is derived from Beg Sir! (untraced; see K. McConkey, op. cit., pl. 38). The idea was partially reworked in Portrait of Eva Fulton, 1886 (Renfrew Museums and Galleries; see K. McConkey, op. cit., pl. 42). In more general terms, the subject of ladies posed with their pet dogs remained within the Lavery canon in works like l'Entente Cordiale, 1905 (Manchester City Art Galleries), Baroness Gerda von Chappuis (Mrs F.A. Konig) (see lot 39) and Rosemary Hope Vere and Bacchus, 1929 (private collection).
The roundel composition, indicated in the background on the right, may refer to Lavery's contribution to the interior of the temporary Glasgow International Exhibition building of 1888 by James Sellars. This was a scheme for which all of the principal Glasgow Boys were commissioned. Lavery's painting is lost. If this is indeed the case then it is unlikely that the picture was painted in Paris, as the verso inscription might otherwise suggest. The dedication 'To Dr Syme', added four years later, refers to the general practitioner who attended Lavery's first wife, Kathleen, at the time of her death in 1891.
The unidentified model for A Girl in Black is drawn from two watercolours of the previous year (both private collections). Unlike the other studio interiors of the early eighties (see lot 40), she has been placed in an 'aesthetic' setting of Japanese fans and simple Godwin-style furniture. This refers directly to the influence of Whistler whom Lavery had met in London in 1886, and who was widely recognized as the chief exponent of a now popular Japonisme. Whistler's influence on Lavery was profound, and it lasted throughout his career, into the full-length portraits of the inter-war period (see K. McConkey, op. cit., pp. 67-82). In the present work it is evident in the dilute pigment and light sketching technique used to indicate the principal features of the composition.