Stella Bowen was born in Adelaide in 1893. She studied art briefly with Margaret Preston before leaving for England in 1914. There she enrolled at the Westminster School of Art and studied under Walter Sickert.
In 1919, she met the writer, Ford Madox Ford, and a year later their daughter Julie was born. From then on, Bowen found little time to paint, but enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle living amongst other artists, writers and musicians in England and France.
A visit to Italy in 1923 reawakened her urge to paint after viewing the fresco paintings of the early Italian primitives, Giotto and Piero della Francesca. This trip was to have a lasting effect on her painting, as she adopted the primitives' use of a narrow tonal scale, which virtually eliminated the effects of light and shade. In 1927, her relationship with Ford ended and she supported herself and Julie on a meagre allowance from her family and occasional portrait commissions.
Bowen was almost fifty when, in 1943, she was offered a commission as an Australian official war artist. She began her commission in February 1944 and, against her wishes, was required to wear an Australian Women's Army Service uniform to facilitate her access to military establishments.
Her main brief was to depict the activities of the Royal Australian Air Force stationed in England. In doing so, she was able to pursue her interest in group portraiture. Bowen was employed by the Memorial for 20 months, during which time she completed forty-nine works.
After the war, her efforts to return to Australia to exhibit her work were frustrated by her lack of funds, the rejection of her application for repatriation, and finally ill health. She died in England in 1947.