1) ELLEN TERRY (1889) - John Singer Sargent
I bought this at the National Portrait Gallery after seeing the wonderful exhibition of Singer Sargent's portraits. In a room filled with other larger-than-life portraits of the rich and famous, Ellen Terry's ruled them all with the intensity and majesty invoked.
Capturing Terry in her role as Lady Macbeth which she played aged 42, you can see how Singer Sargent has captured lightening in making you aware of both the power and the incipient madness that must have been conjured by Terry's performance. The portrait is all the more remarkable in that it is pure imagination as there is no such scene in the play. Singer Sargent has painted her in an extended, larger-tan-life pose to show off the heavy medieval costume, jewelry and accessories and those enormous plaits! But what arrests the viewer is the intense look on Terry's face, her eyes unfocused and lost in a reverie of power
2) MONA LISA (1503-6) - Leonardo de Vinci
Well... how can you not buy a postcard in the Louvre where Lisa del Giacondo stares out at you from anything and everything. Started by Leonardo when she was 24, Lisa Gheradini had been married at 16 to (gasp) Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, a silk and cloth merchant. It is believed that he commissioned the portrait of his wife but Leonardo never delivered it to the couple and worked on it over the years until it was found in his possession when he died in Paris in 1519.
I wonder did Lisa ever entertain thoughts of becoming well-known, possibly when her husband became a Florentine official in 1499. But as the mother of five she probably thought she would be known only to family and friends. I wonder how she would feel to know that her face is one of the most famous in history? As you cannot get close to the painting in it's bullet-proof shrine, really the only way to study it up close is though the postcards, books, posters, prints, tea-towels, fridge-magnets...
3) VERGINE ANNUNCIATA (1528) - Jacopo Pontormo
How many surprised Virgin Marys does one see in Florence? This postcard was bought when we visited the church of Santa Felicita in Florence which boasts several works by the Renaissance painter Pontormo. In this fresco of The Annunciation, Pontormo gives us a restrained version of the event as Mary turns to look behind her at the arrival of the Angel in her bare whitewashed room.
It reflects a Mannerist influence where the bling and emotionalism of Renaissance painting is stripped back to a clear, restrained version of the story. The light shining on her face could be from an external source or from the Angel's radiance and it highlights her pale colouring, blond hair and the simple colours of her robes. I think it's rather lovely.
4) THE GREAT DAY OF HIS WRATH (1851-3) - John Martin
I bought this in 2011 when we visited the John Martin exhibition at Tate Britain. Odd how things trigger memories... we came out of this and I remember getting some very sad news so that is what stays with me when I see Martin's extravagant painting of the Apocalypse. I remember walking round the exhibition and wondering what the Victorians thought of his huge panoramas of sturm und drang. To me, they seemed to be early incarnations of the Biblical epics of Cecil B. deMille; massive palaces with huge empty terraces spotted with 'extras', or as here, huge set-pieces come alive with huge visual effects.
Two huge mountains of earth rise up to be crashed to earth with a zig-zag of lightning cracks across the sky to hit the tiny house raised high off the ground. At the bottom of the painting, tiny figures cower in terror as the end approaches... and all lit by a sickly, glowering deep-red sunset. This painting was one of a triptych that Martin painted about the end of days and they actually toured around theatres in England and America, presented like a sound-and-light show with music and lights to scare the bejesus out of the audience!
5) BANKS OF THE SEINE AT CARRIERES-SUR-SEINE (1906) - Maurice de Vlaminck
I bought this at the Courtauld Gallery which boasts a wonderful collection of both Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, and one of them is this vibrant landscape by Vlaminck. I love his Fauvist world of reds, blues and greens; the year before he painted this, he did a town landscape called "Restaurant de la Machine a Bougival" and whenever I see it I just want to leap into it and live there.
Vlaminck's painting of the banks of the Seine in a town to the north of Paris glows with life and the joy of painting. The whole painting moves with the breezes that swirl the branches of the trees and bushes. The houses on the far side of the Seine offer solidity and community - but on this bank all is life, nature and vivid colour.