Janet Cumbrae-Stewart was a painter and pastel artist who is best known and highly regarded for her delicate pastels of nudes.
Born in 1883 in Brighton, Melbourne, Janet Cumbrae-Stewart holds an important place in Australian art as an integral figure in the 1920s amongst a group of talented women artists, including Clarice Beckett and Dorrit Black, who advocated for modernism in Australian art.
In addition to successfully exhibiting in Australia, Janet was an expatriate artist for nearly two decades, living and working in Britain, France and Italy in the 1920s and 30. During this time, she developed an international profile.
Janet’s artistic talent emerged early and from the age of 15 she was attending drawing classes. After sketching with John Mather, Janet studied drawing and painting at the National Gallery School in Melbourne from 1901-07 under Bernard Hall and the great Australian impressionist painter Frederick McCubbin.
Janet was awarded a number of prizes during her time at the school, notably Second Place in the prestigious National Gallery’s Travelling Scholarship competition in 1905 (the winner being Isaac Cohen).
After completing her formal art training, Janet exhibited her work with the Victorian Artist’s Society from 1914 to 1916 and was a Council member of the Society from 1909 to 1919. She also exhibited with the Queensland Art Society in 1912, 1914 and 1915.
In 1914 Janet sent work to the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, winning a silver medal, and in 1916 became a full member of the Australian Artist’s Association – an honour normally conferred upon elite male artists.
During the 1920s Janet achieved her greatest success with her carefully drawn pastel studies of nudes. Her images captured the attention of art connoisseurs at a time when drawing intimate female nudes was a new and controversial subject for women artists.
Whilst sensual in nature, Janet’s nudes were always refined, and sensitively and tastefully conveyed. In 1921 the artist John Shirlow, and soon-to-be National Gallery of Victoria trustee, said of Janet’s works: “… though telling the secrets of the boudoir, she never descended to the indelicate or vulgar”.
In addition to her exquisite nudes, Janet’s subjects also included still life, landscapes, streetscapes and portraits.
In 1922, Janet left Australia for London and Europe, and thus began an expatriate lifestyle and extensive travels for 17 years.
By 1923 she was an international success, with exhibitions at leading galleries, including the Galérie Beaux-Arts in Paris (from 1924 to 1931), the prestigious Royal Academy in London, and the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (the Old Salon) in Paris, and the Venice Biennale. In 1923 in Paris she was awarded an Honourable Mention at the Old Salon – a great honour. Even Queen Mary bought and commissioned works from her! During her time overseas, Janet also maintained her profile in Australia with exhibitions at the Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne.
During her extensive travels throughout Europe between 1923 and 1931, Janet lived with, and was accompanied by her girlfriend, Miss Argemore ffarington Bellairs (“Billy” Bellairs). They lived at Avignon in France, at Laiguelia on the Riviera de Pontone in Northern Italy, and in Allasio, Italy. Billy acted as Janet’s publicist and business manager, and was a distinctive and enterprising woman of independent means who dressed in masculine attire.
In 1939, Janet and Billy returned to Australia to visit family, but with the outbreak of World War Two, their visit became a permanent move.
Janet continued her successful art career in Australia well into the 1950s, and she and Billy divided their time between their homes in Hurstbridge and South Yarra in Melbourne.
Janet died in 1960, and Billy passed away 10 years later in Surrey, England.
In 1993, Janet’s work was included in “A Century of Australia Women Artists 1840s-1940s” at Deutscher Fine Arts, Melbourne. In 2004, an art exhibition at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery “The Perfect Touch” honoured Janet Cumbrae-Stewart’s extraordinary talent and achievements and her important contribution to Australian art.
Janet Cumbrae-Stewart’s work is represented at the National Gallery of Victoria, National Library of Australia, the State galleries of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, and the Northern Territory, as well as regional collections at the Bendigo Art Gallery, Hamilton Art Gallery, and Deakin University.