Janet Agnes Cumbrae Stewart (1883-1960) Australian born Janet Cumbrae Stewart is now considered one of the most technically masterly women artists of the 1920s and 30s. Born in 1883 in Brighton, near Melbourne, Janet Agnes Stewart (later to adopt the name Cumbrae Stewart in around 1900) was to become one of the most well known and highly sought after artists of the early twentieth century. Despite the prominence she received in her lifetime, Cumbrae Stewart has receded from public attention, her works circulating amongst private collections and family members for the past half-century. However, at the turn of the twenty-first century, nearly 50 years after her death, interest in this enigmatic figure has been revived with an exhibition of her work at the Mornington Peninsula Gallery, Melbourne, in 2003. She is can now to be considered as one of the most technically masterful and culturally astute female artists of the 1920s and 30s.
Her pastel work is predominantly centred on studies of the female nude, modelled by her peers at the National Gallery School where she studied between 1901 and 1907, and close family friends with whom she holidayed in an idyllic home near Melbourne. The depictions of these women are characterised by a lack of superfluous background detail and a painterly application of hand-softened pastel.
Her figures are rendered with subtle tonality giving them a sculptural quality, softened by hints of lace or silk that emphasise the smoothness of the female form and its fragility.
Her skill was noted extensively during her career. As she studied she was frequently awarded for her still life and nudes, and she was received well in the first showing of her work in the 1907 First Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne. Her first solo show followed in 1911 and was a resounding success, her works purchased by prominent collectors and well-known artists including Bernard Hall, the head of the National Gallery School. In 1916 she became a full member of the Australian Artist's Association, an honour normally conferred upon elite male artists. By 1923 she was an international success, having moved to Chelsea, London in 1922 and held exhibitions at Walkers Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Queen Mary is know to have bought her works.
Between 1923 and 1931 Cumbrae Stewart travelled extensively, and set up a household in Alassio, Italy with her girlfriend, publicist and business manager Billy Bellairs. In 1939 she returned back to Melbourne with Billy, and remained there due to the outbreak of war. She moved out of public art circles, continuing to work into the 1950s. She died in Melbourne in 1960.