When asked to reflect on the life and work of iconic Birmingham artist Arthur Stewart, his family, friends, and art critics invariably call up adjectives reminiscent of 1940s movie stars— debonair, a bon vivant, urbane. And they inevitably conclude, “Most of all, Arthur was the kindest man I ever knew.”
“He developed a following as a personality as well as an artist, ” remembers his nephew and godson Rusty Stewart. “Arthur was an engaging person—well read, physically fit, handsome, and well dressed. He was the ideal guest at a dinner party.”
Rusty speculates that Arthur’s magnetic personality may have landed him one of his most intriguing portraits, a 1940s oil study of Parisian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who posed in her Place Vendome apartment. In the painting, Schiaparelli wears a blue dress, pearls, and green platform shoes against a background of mauve draperies. “He captured her great persona, ” Rusty comments. “I have often wondered how a young, and then unknown, painter got into that famous apartment.”
Art collector Elise Durbin treasures the two portraits Arthur painted of her as a four-year old and also the memories of the multiple sittings in the early 1970s. “He baked me lemon cookies, ” she recalls. “I ate cookies and my mother read me stories as he painted. Arthur didn’t simply paint ‘bank president portraits.’ He captured personalities.”
“Arthur Stewart was without a doubt one of the most elegant individuals I ever met, ” concurs Birmingham Museum of Art Director Gail Andrews. “His appreciation for both Dutch and Flemish paintings was especially apparent in his work. In his portraits, he was able to capture the essential character of the sitter. And his watercolors of flowers are brilliant and technically superb.”
The third of eight siblings, Arthur grew up in Perry
County. He began painting at the age of six, showing an early talent with “very theatrical and dramatic” portraits of his sisters. After graduating from Marion Military Institute in 1935, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. During World War II, Arthur served in the Army, drawing military scenes for training purposes. Artistic vagabond years followed before he settled in San Francisco in the late 1940s. In 1952, the artist came home to Birmingham.
During his 60-plus years of painting, Arthur hung over 35 one-man shows from New York to California. He customarily offered paintings from home gallery shows at his four-acre Glocca Morra Farm in Birmingham, where the gardens provided inspiration for his vibrant floral watercolors. More than a thousand of his pieces currently hang in private and public collections, including the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and the galleries of the Queen of England.
If alive today, Arthur would no doubt continue to project a timeless Cary Grant elegance in his double-breasted jackets and signature pocket scarves, regaling dinner guests with witty stories told against a backdrop of museum-worthy art. A Renaissance man for all seasons, his legacy endures.
Written and produced by Cathy Adams