Una in focus

Social distancing in the park

la grande jatte


Mary Morrissy, curator of this site, takes a wander in the park and sees influences of Seurat and Kernoff in Una Watters’ The People’s Gardens (1963)  

Three park views, three different painters.  Una Watters painted the third of the sequence here, The People’s Gardens (oil on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm) in 1963 but as a keen student of art,  it seems inevitable she was familiar with the other two – Georges Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on La Grand Jatte (1886) and Harry Kernoff‘s People’s Gardens (1945).

Harry Kernoff  (1900-1974) was a near contemporary of Una’s and The People’s Garden, Phoenix Park Dublin (oil on board ,13.5 x 19.5 cm) was painted on the same site in 1945, nearly 20 years before Una’s.  Apart from the location it’s possible to see other influences, particularly in the animation of the figures and the way the shadows are rendered.  Kernoff and Una would certainly have known one another’s work through RHA exhibitions.  They showed together at least once in an Oireachtas exhibition in October 1965, where Una’s Sean Tithe (see in Uncatalogued Work on this site) appeared alongside work by Kernoff and two of  Una’s mentors,  Maurice McGonigal and Sean O’Sullivan. harry kernoff - st stephen's green

O’Sullivan was Una’s cousin, and would have been another link between her and Harry Kernoff.  (It’s recorded that Kernoff painted his 1936 St Stephens’ Green,  from a perch at the window of O’Sullivan’s studio at 126 St Stephen’s Green; see right.)

As well as a shared colour palette, Una’s and Kernoff’s paintings of the People’s Gardens  seem similarly motivated. Here are ordinary people observed in leisure, although Una’s rendering keeps its distance and is more stylised than Kernoff’s up-close, jaunty realism.  Artist Michael Kane writing in the Irish Arts Review described Kernoff as painting “the world around him as a kind of earthy, egalitarian paradise, and celebrated its gaiety and diversity with unapologetic optimism”.

That description would not be out of place when looking at Una’s urban work such as The People’s Gardens or Cappagh Road, discussed in an earlier blog on this site.

But Una’s The People’s Gardens also owes a major debt to Seurat’s 1886 pointillist masterpiece, A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte. In this work, now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago,  Seurat depicted the haute-bourgeoisie of Paris, statuesque matrons with their bonnets, bustles and brollies, accompanied by their prosperous, top-hatted gents and polite children, taking the air on the fashionable side of the Seine, dressed in their Sunday best.  The figures in Seurat’s painting stand, as one critic has described it, with the “solemnity of sculptures of the Parthenon”.

bathersCompare them with the figures in Seurat’s  Bathers at Asnières (1884) on the left here  – at the National Gallery London – which the painter saw as a companion piece to La Grande Jatte.  He imagined the two works  hanging side by side almost in a dialogue with one another. The male figures in the Bathers are working-class labourers lounging on the bank or immersing themselves in the waters of the Seine on a white hot muggy day,  with the chimneys of factories smoking in the background. All of the figures are gazing towards their right – at the more fashionable side of the river where the viewer can imagine the posher denizens of La Grande Jatte are strolling. The little boy on the extreme right waist-deep in the water with the red hat could even be cat-calling at his “betters” on the other bank.

The democratic spirit in Una’s The People’s Gardens depicting everyday people enjoying a day of leisure at a municipal facility, are more akin to Seurat’s Bathers. But there are definite painterly echoes of La Grande Jatte in Una’s composition.  Look at that sturdy little girl in yellow chasing a ball in the left foreground of Una’s painting; isn’t there an echo of the more sylph-like girl in red, skipping in the mid-ground of Seurat’s master-work?  The kite-flying figure in blue in full flight in the background of Una’s work is mirrored by the man in Seurat’s mid-ground left,  dressed in a rust-coloured suit with his spy glass raised. There are those pooled shadows again, and Una’s trees, with their solid angularity, have something of the same abstraction as Seurat brought to the pointillist cushions of foliage crowning his trees.

Sheila Smith, Una’s niece, has observed that Una liked to place people she knew – and sometimes herself – into her paintings.  In The People’s Gardens, Sheila has identified the elderly couple on the path, one of them leaning on a walking stick, as Una’s parents.

The location of both Una’s and Kernoff’s painting is an area of the Phoenix Park in Dublin originally called the Victorian People’s Flower Gardens. It was a site Una had already painted in The People’s Park, below, a watercolour from 1943 and she returned to it in 1963 with The People’s Gardens, now housed in the Hugh Lane Gallery.  (Logan Sisley, acting head of collections at the Hugh Lane Gallery,  has written elsewhere on this blog about the painting.)

The Gardens were initially established in 1840 as the Promenade Grounds and consist of about 22 acres.  They were set up to display Victorian horticulture at its best with ornamental lakes, a children’s playground, a picnic area and formal bedding schemes. The statue that’s visible in Una’s watercolour, below, may well be the bust of executed 1916 leader Seán Heuston, a memorial in stone executed by sculptor and painter Laurence Campbell and erected in the park in 1943.


The People’s Park (1943) Una Watters; Statue of Sean Heuston (credit William Murphy); early 20th century postcard of the People’s Gardens, Phoenix Park.

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