Art historian Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA, takes a close look at Una’s 1943 self-portrait and finds the influence of an early mentor, the prolific painter and portraitist, Sean O’Sullivan.
Painted during what became known as The Emergency in Ireland (1939-1946), which took place in the context of World War Two, the artist’s simple peplum-collared blouse in Self Portrait in Green, (oil on canvas, 25 x 30 cm) was typical of the era. So too, her soft, behind the ear hairstyle is one that we might now recognise from film and photographs of the time.
Watters gazes at her viewer with confidence, and yet with a hint of reticence, her asymmetrical features filling the canvas with an honesty that is typical of the use of the mirror while working on the painting. Her demeanour and the centralised composition of her self-portrait are characteristic of the self-confidence of Irish women artists in the post-Treaty years, many of whom, including Watters, engaged with modernist art forms such as cubism and abstraction, to develop personal, and highly individual styles.
Watters was 25 when she painted Self Portrait in Green, a highly accomplished work that warrants consideration about the artist’s training. During her teenage years she received guidance about painting in general, and likely, portraiture in particular from her cousin, artist Sean O’Sullivan. That she received such guidance suggests that Watters demonstrated artistic talent at an early age, the evidence for which in terms of earlier works may yet come to light, but which certainly seems to have caught the attention of her cousin.
Moreover, Self Portrait in Green is reminiscent of O’Sullivan’s method of portraiture at the time. In the late 1930s, Watters was taught by artist, Maurice MacGonigal at the School of Art in Dublin. It would appear, however, that she was sitting in on classes during her spare time, as her name does not appear on the student registers. That she was doing so is quite possible; O’Sullivan might well have made the necessary arrangements with MacGonigal at the time. Importantly too, Watters worked as a librarian, so she would have had access to books, and journals about the history of art, and about contemporary art, all of which would have contributed to her artistic education.
Self Portrait in Green reveals a great deal about Watters’ innate talent and artistic education in terms of composition and colour balance. Her simple blouse was chosen to highlight the colour of her eyes, which, in turn, are lightly shaded with a similarly toned shadow. Her lipstick, typical of red shades made so popular during the Second World War, was chosen to contrast with her green blouse, a painterly decision that gives extraordinary life to the work.
The same colour is used to highlight her cheeks, much as a make-up artist might do nowadays. The overall effect of the controlled palate of colour gives a softness to the work that is gentle on the viewer’s eye. Her face is lit by natural light from the viewers’ right, thereby casting the opposite side in shadow that delineates her youthful features.
It is in the painterly treatment of her eyes that the viewer can really appreciate the artist’s flair, and her training. Deliberately composed so that her gaze appears above the centre of the canvas, her eyes appear as mountains might above the horizon in a landscape. Large, and well defined, her steady gaze draws the viewer in to the shy determination that shines from within. The few flicks of white paint around her dark and enlarged pupils, are a tiny detail, and yet, they are the touches that bring her face to life.
A powerful portrait for an artist of such youth, Self Portrait in Green prefigures the outstanding range of post-impressionist and modernist inspired work that Watters undertook throughout her career. Unafraid to experiment, Watters was a woman of immense artistic ability. How wonderful it is to see her career re-examined, and reinstated within the context of the art and artists of her day.
Dr Eimear O’Connor