Una Watters was born 103 years ago on this day. We celebrate her birthday with this charming early self-portrait. This is one of the few oil paintings that she signed with her maiden name, Una McDonnell. (She married Eugene Watters in 1945.) So it’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman.The painting (oil on canvas, 23 x 31 cm) dates to 1942 when she was just 24. It may well have been completed while she was studying at the National College of Art where she attended part-time on the encouragement of Maurice MacGonigal, the college’s director.
Like the 1943 Self-Portrait in Green, featured elsewhere on this site, the sitter’s gaze is clear and candid, although there is something tentative about the expression. The graceful contour of her neck is accentuated by a gold crucifix on a delicate chain. The colourful floral dress looks more girlish than the sophisticated presentation in Self Portrait in Green and although Una looks straight at us, she is slightly off-centre in the composition, her right shoulder out of frame. This adds to the impression of uncertain youth. It lacks the forthright pose of the 1943 work. Although painted only a year later, the confidence of the “green” portrait is noticeable, perhaps as a consequence of the formal training she was receiving.
As far as we know, this portrait was never exhibited (it wasn’t in the 1966 exhibition, for example) and remained in the McDonnell family endorsing the notion that it may well have been an apprentice work.
As Frances Borzello remarks in Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits, self-portraits are often done for practice, or alternatively for self-promotion. “A comparison of the artist with a painted subject was the best way to prove one’s skill at catching a likeness.”
Una’s interest in portraiture was established early. She did impromptu sketches of family and friends from a young age. She went on to complete several accomplished oil portraits – of Eugene Watters, Brian O’Higgins and Tomas O Muircheartaigh – where according to the sitters or their familiars, she had the skill of achieving great likenesses.
As Colbert Kearney remarks of her portrait of Eugene Watters: “Seeing it again more than a half a century later, was a Pygmalion moment: I expected the image in the frame to turn and talk to me so miraculously had the artist captured not only the appearance, but also the essence of the man.”
So are we seeing the “real” Una here? Well, perhaps, though as Dr Eimear O’Connor pointed out writing about Self Portrait in Green, the self-portrait is more than autobiographical statement. It’s also about technique – the compendium of painterly decisions on light, colour and composition that reflect the artist’s innate talent.