Una in focus

She stoops to conquer?

Guest blogger Michael Waldron, Assistant Curator of Collections and Special Projects at the Crawford Gallery, Cork, takes a closer look at Una’s 1959 painting, “Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain”.

On my first in-person encounter with this painting, shafts of autumn sunlight, filtering through Venetian blinds, fell across its surface. This serendipitous meeting of art and atmosphere added another dimension to an already striking composition. 

Assuredly contemporary, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain ( oil on canvas, 61 x 81 cm) is of its time. Coming in the years following the Mother and Child Scheme, establishment of the Arts Council of Ireland (1951), completion of Busáras (1953), and the Marian Year (1954), this was an Ireland on the cusp of significant social change. (The first female recruits to An Garda Síochána (1959), the founding of RTÉ Television (1961), and the publication of Edna O’Brien’s bellwether novel, The Country Girls (1960), were just on the horizon.)

Although not avant-garde by any stretch, Watters’ painting, nonetheless, has its roots in the revolutionary aesthetics from earlier in the century. In its dynamic, slightly prismatic energy, there are resonances with the paintings of Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellett, Evie Hone, Norah McGuinness, and to a lesser degree, of Louis le Brocquy and Colin Middleton. Rather than specific reference points, however, these may be taken to inform the stylistic territory that Watters was herself exploring.

In Watters’ painting there are faint echoes too of States of Mind: Those Who Go (1911) by Umberto Boccioni. Dissolving into horizontal whisps, the downcast figures in this work of Italian Futurism seem to be the disillusioned heirs to the confident 19th century urbanites of Impressionism.

Such dynamic Cubo-Futurist fragmentation are also hallmarks of Giacomo Balla’s pre-First World War work. Within this art historical space, however, a stronger aesthetic equivalent to Watters is perhaps the second-generation Italian Futurist painter Alessandro Bruschetti (1910-1980), whose aeropaintings are stylistically similar, if politically very distant.

Rainy, urban settings were among the subjects of a coterie of modernist artists during the later nineteenth century. In the case of the Impressionists, the atmospheric qualities of rain and its effects on colour and light – so celebrated in Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) by J.M.W. Turner – perhaps offered an opportunity to capture something ephemeral.

Exemplary of such renderings, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) is a scene of fashionable Bourgeois individuals walking in a wintry Place de Dublin. Les Parapluies (The Umbrellas), Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famed 1880s painting, is another fine example – this time with a more direct Irish context.  

In 1959, the year Watters painted Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain, a historic agreement was reached between Dublin and London which would see an alternation of Lane Bequest paintings displayed in the Hugh Lane Gallery and The National Gallery. Les Parapluies was – and still is – among this infamous group of works that drew together national politics, international relations, and the art world.

Moreover, this “1st Loan Agreement” came after decades of lobbying at the highest levels and would certainly have been spoken of in Watters’ social circles and home life. (Incidentally, Watters’ The People’s Gardens (1963) – written of previously here by Logan Sisley – is part of the Hugh Lane Gallery collection.)

While these may be circumstantial, even tangential contexts, it is worth noting them when attempting to situate Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain and Watters’ informed approach to subjects and style. Both, like Watters’ painting, possess a sense of solidity. But if either of these works was on the Irish artist’s mind when composing her painting, she decisively abandons their cooler grey-blue palettes in favour of red and peach tones that warm the sombre, inhospitable Dublin streetscape.  

Les Parapluies – Pierre August Renoir

Mary Morrissy has previously (and astutely) described Watters’ composition and suggested a thematic connection between her inclusion of John Henry Foley’s statue of Oliver Goldsmith (top left) and the mythological story of Danaë receiving the golden rain.

Searching for other meanings, we might look to the eponymous ‘girl’ as she passes in profile outside the railings of Trinity College: is there an implied reference to Archbishop McQuaid’s enforcement of the Catholic ‘ban’ on entering the institution between 1956 and 1970?

Or perhaps there is a simpler joke implied here: does our ‘girl’ (the artist?) – leaning slightly, yet resolutely into the rain – ‘stoop to conquer’ as per Goldsmith’s 1770s stage comedy? 

Michael Waldron

By Mary Morrissy

Mary Morrissy curates this site. She is an award-winning novelist, short story writer and journalist. She has taught creative writing at university level in the US and Ireland for the past 20 years, and is also an individual literary mentor.

2 replies on “She stoops to conquer?”

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