Little is known about the identity of Lavery's female models between his return to Glasgow in the winter of 1884 and the Glasgow International Exibition in 1888. During this time he painted the daughters of James Fulton, Lady Glen Coats, Miss Rothyberg, and a few other documented sitters. His only identified model at this time was Bella Cullen, an Irish girl, who sat for Mary, Queen of Scots in Dawn after the Battle of Langside, 1887 (private collection). The incongruity of an Irish girl posing as the Scots queen suggests that the models for works of the eighties, like La Belle Americaine, La Jeune Parisienne and here, A French Girl, may not live up to the nationality suggested in the titles. On the other hand, pictures like A Girl in Black, 1887 (Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 17 May 2001, lot 41) and originally inscribed verso, 'Paris', along with An October Evening, circa 1887, could provide evidence of a visit to the French capital during this year. Although a number of other models have similar hairstyles, none can be identified with complete certainty with the subject of the present work. It is however, not unlikely that the 'French' girl was the model we find in Portrait of a Lady, 1886 (Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, Scone Palace, 19 April 1977, lot 307). Both have similar profiles. She may also have sat for the 1888 version of A Girl in Black, 1888 (private collection). All of this surrounds the present work with mystery.
There are nevertheless, important observations to make about the young woman's style. She wears rouge, an indicator of good health. Her full white skirt, green sash and military-style tunic tell us that she is a fashion-conscious young woman. The skirt enables her to indulge in energetic activity - in cycling or tennis. Philip Wilson Steer in Three Girls on a Pier, Walberswick, 1888-1891 (Tate Britain) and John Singer Sargent in Mr and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, 1897 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), show similarly dressed young women. In Lavery's case his subject is ahead of her contemporaries and she projects a commensurate freedom and independence, anticipating the 'new' woman of the nineties.
During these years the painter was also perfecting a sketch-like handling that enabled him to respond swiftly and spontaneously to the sitter. It is most clearly evident in his studies for The State Visit of Queen Victoria to the International Exhibition, Glasgow, August 1888, (Glasgow Art Galleries and Museums) which were made between 1888 and 1890. The present work, jewel-like in its subtle balance of colour and tone, has all of the fluidity and freshness of these studies, whilst the delicate modelling of the head gives a greater sense of completeness.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue note.