Una in focus

Happy Birthday, Una Watters

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.

Una in focus

Self-Portrait in Green


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