The picture's full title is Startled, Contre-Jour. The latter means against daylight, and is popular nowadays in photography for its dramatic effects, but is also used in painting. So here, Dicksee is telling the viewer that he is painting against the light source and into the setting sun, with the glow that plays around the backs of the fleeing girls subtly suggesting the time of day. Startled is owned by the Royal Academy, which also has a separate study in pencil of the younger girl, where the artist is playing with the possibilities of the directions of light. Chalk shading in this sketch becomes gold reflecting the evening sun in the finished work. Both were completed in 1892, and show the traditional academic influences that formed Dicksee's view that Greek sculpture portrayed the perfection of the human body in the nude. Numerous early sketches allowed him to develop the theme that would inform the end result.
Painter of a hundred and sixteen works and known for his use of vibrant colours, Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee was a Victorian Romanticist, and disapproved of modern developments in art. He specialised in historical, legendary and literary subjects, and usually included a quotation in his titles. The fact that one is missing in Startled could imply that there is no literary reference, and that the scene is imagined. Indeed, one critic complained that it fell between the two, and was therefore satisfactory for neither. Dicksee was part of an artistic family, and he and his sister Margaret were taught by his father Thomas.
He studied at the Royal Academy, where he came into contact with established artists such as Frederick Lord Leighton, and the Pre-Raphaelite master Sir John Everett Millais. Presented with a Royal Academy Schools Medal in 1875, he later became an Academician himself, eventually rising to be president. In addition, Frank Dicksee was an illustrator and draughtsman, and also achieved great success with his portraits of fashionable women. He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, embracing their use of historical and melodramatic themes in rich colours. Today, he is remembered and valued for his paintings in that genre, which his admirers still find to be relevant today, and with Startled, he gives them a classic piece of story-telling.