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April 04, 2006

Jack Vettriano

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I failed.

I just could not come up with a title for this post that was wry, catchy, ironic, revealing or any of the other tricks I'm so fond of.

No doubt it's because Scottish painter Jack Vettriano is a sometimes elusive, complicated and controversial subject.

The Art Establishment in Britain (Scotland, especially) seems to alternatively hate him and ignore him -- museums are last in line to buy his paintings.

On the other hand, his iconic "The Singing Butler" was sold for £744,500 (nicely more than a million dollars) at an auction in 2004 whereas in 1992 it was rejected for a Royal Academy show. It's estimated that he annually earns around £500,000 in royalties from print sales. Then he creates original paintings that can go for around $60-75,000 each. Oh, and he was awarded the OBE and also picked up an honorary doctorate from Scotland's St. Andrews University.


What follows is largely based on information from the following links which should be consulted by interested readers.

The most recent book about him can be found here. This is a fairly recent New York Times article (registration required) about Vettriano. Edinburgh's newspaper The Scotsman has an art critic who states here that Vettrianos' "pictures very often look grotesque. Just like the prices they command." An Irish defense of his work and a discussion of the criticism can be found here.

Then there's last fall's controversy about the source for the dancing couple image in "The Singing Butler" (more on that below). Here is The Scotsman's take just after the story broke.

To get a better taste of Jack himself, read the Q&A here.


Vettriano was born Jack Hoggan near Kirkaldy in Fife, Scotland in 1951. His father worked in mines as did Jack as an apprentice before moving on to other working-class jobs.

As a child he became interested in drawing and kept at it. When he was 20 he encountered Ruth McIntosh who saw enough promise in his work that she bought him a watercolor set. This modest encouragement gave him enough confidence to begin to study painting from how-to books and museum visits. He ended up in Edinburgh with a white-collar job, a wife and a mortgage, but the weekend painting continued.

In 1988, by then in his later thirties, he had two paintings in a Royal Scottish Academy show -- and both sold. Around this time Vettriano, for professional reasons, dropped his last name (Hoggan) and adopted his mother's maiden name. (Maybe "adapted" might be a better term -- one source says her name was actually "Vettrino.")

Finding demand for his work, Vettriano contacted some dealers who exhibited his paintings to indifferent results. His breakthrough came in the form of his contact with Tom Hewlett's Portland Gallery in London, a specialist in Scottish art. Hewlett's promotional efforts led to a rapid commercial rise for Vettriano which he repaid by remaining loyal to Hewlett: Portland Gallery is his exclusive dealer and has set up a special room for displaying his work.

Early in this process Vettriano and his wife were divorced. He maintains a residence in Scotland that he uses to get away from the work he mostly does in his Chelsea (London) studio/living quarters.

Although much of his work deals with male-female relationships placed in late 1940s and 1950s lower-middle class or even demimonde settings where the action is "edgy" or even beyond, Vettriano comes off in interviews as being somewhat conservative in his values.

The biggest controversy -- besides whether or not his art is any good -- came in the fall of 2005 when a newspaper came up with a photo from a clip-art or how-to book showing the same pose as that of the dancing couple in "The Singing Butler" (see image below).

Hewlett quickly dismissed the matter by stating that of course Vettriano was self-taught, could not afford models and had to get reference data where he could. Anyway, that particular pose was incidental to the conception and execution of the entire painting. For what it's worth, I find this argument persuasive. Artists -- including famous ones -- have borrowed themes or compositions or poses for centuries. Plus, there's a difference in the art world between "borrowing" bits from someplace else and outright "copying": it's more slippery than the literary question of plagiarism.

Vettriano does not paint from models in any case. In fact, in the interview cited above, he maintains that he can't, for psychological reasons, paint directly from a model. Instead, he brings in a model, has her dress (or undress) appropriately for his concept of the painting and then he'll take a bunch of photos and use them as references. Again, this is no big deal; artists back to Degas and even before have used photographic references, though many tended to keep quiet about this dirty little practice.

Enough scene-setting. Let's take a look at some of Vettriano's work.


Jack photo.jpg
Jack Vettriano.

The Singing Butler.jpg
"The Singing Butler"
This is Vettriano's most famous painting. Thousands of reproductions are sold annually.

the copied pose.jpg
Section of "The Singing Butler" and the reference photo Vettriano used.

Elegy for a Dead Admiral.jpg
"Elegy for the Dead Admiral"
This painting also has been reproduced many times.

The Billy Boys.jpg
"The Billy Boys"
Another kind of seashore scene.

Same Old Game.jpg
"The Same Old Game"
One of Vettriano's noir paintings.

Beautiful Losers II.jpg
"Beautiful Losers II"
Vettriano sometimes includes a third person to add to the psychological depth.

In Thoughts of You.jpg
"In Thoughts of You"
One of his more recent paintings.

Hopper - Room in New York - 1932.jpg
Edward Hopper: "Room in New York" 1932.
Here is an Edward Hopper painting of the kind that Vettriano's work sometimes echoes.


I have never seen a Vettriano painting except as a reproduction. And the large-scale reproductions one is likely to see are for his early "seashore" paintings that Vettriano feels are more crudely done than his later work. I have a copy of the book cited above which has a good many color reproductions. Still, non-Giclée reproductions normally deaden the look of a painting and the difference in size between the genuine article and a book reproduction also can create a false impression. I vow to visit the Portland Gallery next time I'm in London and will report my impressions.

After looking at Vettriano's paintings and mulling things over, I decided that his non-seashore/resort scenes are analogous to much of Edward Hopper's work. Reading the sources above I find that others were similarly struck.

The similarity to Hopper lies more in the settings and emotional responses Hopper and Vettriano evoke than in the technical appearance of the paintings. Hopper, for instance, includes landscapes and cityscapes in many of his works whereas Vettriano, beach paintings aside, tends to paint interiors. Hopper painted some landscapes but I've never come across a pure landscape by Vettriano. To this degree Hopper might be considered a more "well-rounded" painter than Vettriano. On the other hand, I think Vettriano paints people more convincingly than Hopper -- I consider some of Hopper's humans rather crudely done.

If asked to characterize Vettriano's style, I would call it poster-like. The things depicted -- especially the interior scenes -- give the appearance of being outlined and colors filled in, though he does model forms.

Vettriano's paintings definitely have a psychological "edginess" to them that I think should appeal to the critics who disparage his work. Lord knows edginess seems to be an important desideratum in Post-Modern art, but apparently it's better to combine edginess with visual distortion than with comparatively pure realism if you want to please critics.

Besides sexually-charged subject matter, he sometimes goes beyond simple man-woman scenes by adding a third person, creating more uncertainty and tension. Vettriano claims to be an illustrator and storyteller, depicting an instant whose past and future can be imagined or pondered by the viewer.

To conclude, I don't think Vettriano is a great technician (I need to see a few real paintings to confirm or reject this). Yet his paintings have power and fascinate. I suspect his reputation will be at least as good as that of Hopper. And I further suspect that his critics are mistaken by viewing his work through their class-conscious prism of despising artists who (1) get rich from their efforts and (2) are popular with the general public. (Popularity seems to be fine provided the artist is safely dead and was poverty-stricken while alive, c.f. Van Gogh.)

Do not ignore Vettriano.



posted by Donald at April 4, 2006


Looked to me as though the interviewer was the only one with thoughts on Vorain! And Vorain was pretty interesting, too.

I think Vettriano is a good story-teller, but I don't think of Hopper so much as I think of paperback covers and movie posters. Audrey Hepburn -- right! I also get a sort of Asperger's vibe -- a kind of objectivity but framed in a narrow world of experience. That is, he doesn't feel the emotion himself, but he sees the emotion and the potential for narrative in the models. I suspect that when he takes the model out for dinner, there's not a heckuva lot more connection than there was when he took her picture.

Interesting that people keep asking for the beach in the background -- the windy beach. It's sort of like a stage where ordinary tableau (people sitting down to dinner) is made dramatic.

There are American Western painters who are as good as this, but none of them can command these prices. I wonder why. Is the familiarity of being on cards and so on? Is it just having a very good gallery? Or is it timing? Maybe the subject matter is hard for people with major money to relate to, now that major money comes from cyber-fortunes and money-management.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 4, 2006 11:27 PM

Great post, mang.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 5, 2006 08:53 AM

Much appreciated and enjoyed, as ever. It's hard to know with a guy like Vettriano what seeing the pix in person will be like, isn't it? In repro, they're very poster-like -- as P. Mary says, they're like nifty bookjacket art. (A cool thing in its own right.) But maybe in person there's some paint-touch evident, or maybe the scaling has an effect, or something. On the other hand, maybe they're at their best viewed in reproduction. (Not a bad topic for a blogposting: artists whose work is best enjoyed in reproduction ...) Like you I can't help wondering how the future will sort out the visual art of our era. Will the art-establishment types still see a lot of value in Damien Hirst? Will they come to appreciate Vettriano? Will there even be a central art-establishment? If so, will they even bother looking back? If so, will they concern themselves much with single still images?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 5, 2006 10:57 AM

I LOVE this stuff. People question whether he's an artist? Go figure. I could look at it all day! It does fascinate...isn't that a fundamental part of "art"? Who cares if he copied from a photograph rather than "copying" from a real life model---I mean, seriously, who cares? Unless the entire painting was composed and executed in someone's head...isn't painting a nude model in front of you "copying"? Like, from Nature?

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2006 11:11 AM

My immediate reaction -- a slickster.

That's not to say his technique is anything to sneer at.
But genuine feeling? I don't see it.

Posted by: ricpic on April 5, 2006 11:17 AM

I think his stuff is awful, even for book covers. I've seen pulp covers with WAY more feeling than this. Reproductions of the butler at the beach painting hang over many a young couples' mantle, my brother and his wife included. Which is fine, of course.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 5, 2006 11:32 AM

See...there ya go! It's why colleges still have classes titled "What is Art?"

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2006 11:40 AM

After thinking about this overnight, I think there are two keys here:

1. The surrealism of something familiar but skewed somehow -- ballroom dancing or dining at the beach.

2. The potential for interpretation. He reminds me of the little sketched vignettes one is presented for a Thematic Apperception Test, which is slightly more sophisticated than an inkblot test. For instance, there is a drawing of a woman in bed while a man sits in a chair beside her. Is this a dead mother with her grieving son? Is it a patient with a doctor keeping vigil? Are they lovers and he's thinking of leaving her? What you say about it is thought to reveal your general inner world. Vettriano's talent seems to be leaving a LOT of room for interpretation. That's not BAD. Just there.

I'm with Annette on the copying issue. Who cares? Get the image where you can.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 5, 2006 12:35 PM

At least you didn't call him a "peripheral artist" even though he isn't Americam, although he isn't Eastern European either, so you still might not have shed your xenophobic rep! :)

Posted by: annette on April 5, 2006 01:46 PM


I have some friends who own a print of The Singing Butler. I've always liked the painting -- like the colors, like the mood -- and wanted to know more about it, but said friends have no idea where they got it, who it's by, or what it's called. Now I know.


Posted by: J.D. on April 5, 2006 02:12 PM

Vettriano always struck me as very stiff and shallow, especially compared to Hopper, who has wistfulness and sadness and grace, all combined with a sinister edge. Vettriano's human figures look like posed mannequins.

If you want easily accessible surrealism, go back to the surrealists, many of whom were very accessible (surrealism might have been the most immediately accessible 20th century painting style).

Posted by: MQ on April 5, 2006 04:36 PM

I'm glad you illustrated this post with Hopper; now everyone can see who's the real deal.

Vettriano will look good on a movie/play poster, in my opinion - something sketchy, intended for giving the public a quick idea of the upcoming attraction. He's too crude and mechanistic (if that's a word) to pass for an artist.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 6, 2006 02:11 PM

Mary -- I don't think Vettriano can paint as well as Sargent or Serov or Fuchs or Pino or most of the artists I've dwelt on here over the past year. He seems to be limited. Yet, quasi-pulp-cover though it might seem, there is something there that people find compelling. The nub is probably the "story" but the way he presents the incident is a factor too. If I can come up with a real analysis, I'll post on it.

Michael -- Thnx for all those post-topic tips!

ricpic, partriarchy -- No, you don't have to like Vettraino's stuff. His story intrigues me and so does his painting, but this post is just to call attention to it all.

MQ and Tat -- As I mentioned in the post, I regard Hopper as more versatile. On the other hand, given his training and time as a commercial artist, I find Hopper's painting surprisingly crudely done. Though I do like "Nighthawks" and some others.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 7, 2006 01:39 PM

Donald, if you're interested in the story of the artist, as well as his craft, and don't wince at "kitch" label, may be you might consider Vladimir Tretchikov for your series.

Although, apparently (news to me!), he's considered the highest seller in the world and therefore can't be described as "peripheral"; may be only in geographical sense of the word.

As to Hopper..what if he deliberately chose to glaze over too-detailed painting? Thus his oils acquire sort of watercolorly qualities: the image isn't too precise so it doesn't leave anything to viewer's imagination.

Posted by: Tat on April 7, 2006 06:35 PM

I first saw Vettriano's work a few years ago at Hennessey & Ingall's, in his book "Lovers and other Strangers." I really liked the noir lighting and his composition.

Thanks for the additional info.

Posted by: claire on April 9, 2006 05:11 PM

I like Vettriano paintings. The Singing Butler fills me full of nostalgia for a lost England I never knew. His subjects remind me of the writings of British authors Mary Wesley and R F Delderfield. Reflections of traditional values, of the aristocracy living in genteel poverty, the heroic deeds of idealistic young men brought sharply into the real world by the First World War. Perhaps it's a cultural thing.

Looking at this series of paintings, I also become aware of the depth and shadows in the Vettriano - that makes his paintings quite different to the Hopper.

A comment on the controversy - such an original pose to find (irony)! I am sure we could find a dozen similar poses in the stills of Astaire and Rogers if you wanted to liken his paintings to pre-existing photographs. But the aim was to shame and so an artist's 'how-to' book was chosen.

An interesting exercise for the unconvinced : in what ways did Vettriano enhance the original? What did he do to imprint his own style, his own take on what he saw? At the simplest level : colour, shadow and light. But also : the tilt of the head - the man closer to the woman. And the muscles on that woman's back! What does that tell us? A different alignment of the leg - the knee less bent, the bare feet.

It seems they are not so alike after all! :-)

Thanks for all the information about Vettriano and the links. Fascinating.

Posted by: Astryngia on April 11, 2006 04:37 PM

This isn't about Jack Vettriano, but about an exhibit of American illustrators, and I wasn't sure where else to put it.

There's a review by Ken Johnson in today's (4/13/06) on-line edition of the "New York Times" of an interesting new exhibtion at the Dahesh Museum (the museum that wanted to buy and restore 2 Columbus Circle, but was shut out and instead renovated the exhibition space in the IBM Building):

Art Review: Stories to Tell
Illustrations by American Artists at the Dahesh Museum

(Free registration required to read it on the "New York Times" website.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 13, 2006 12:11 AM

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