Jack Vettriano's enigmatic tableaux have made him one of Britain's most popular contemporary artists but, as Jacqueline Harrett reports, not without controversy
Scottish artist Jack Vettriano's The Singing Butler is set in a different era, almost in a different world. The main movement is centralised in the elegant figures, dancing on a beach, oblivious to the weather. The dancers are so immersed in each other that the butler and maid seem almost superfluous. The difference between the two couples is obvious. The central pair is totally absorbed in each other, entwined in each other's arms, physically close and mentally in tune; in contrast, the two servants stand apart, bent against the elements, holding unwieldy umbrellas aloft but at a little distance from the dancers. The maid seems more concerned with holding on to her cap than anything else and, from the title, we assume that the butler is serenading the couple. Shadows on the sand indicate that there is some watery sunshine, despite the grey sky. A bag sits at the maid's feet but we are given no inkling as to its contents.
The background to this painting is bland: shimmering sands, distant horizon and a turbulent sky. It is a beach, but flat and indistinct in character.
Grey clouds make up most of the backdrop and one wonders if these clouds are foretelling of some disaster for the couple - an ominous presence, a threat to their happiness. The impression of movement is given not only by the stance of the figures but also in the billowing apron of the maid and handkerchief of the butler. They appear to be struggling against the wind.
In contrast to this, the wind has made little impression on the clothing or hair of the dancers. The bare feet of the woman give the impression of abandonment, as if she is giving herself up entirely to this moment in time. In The Singing Butler we are presented with a mystery story. Who are the dancing couple and why are they there? The bag compounds the mystery.
What does it contain? Are they planning to run away together or does it belong to the maid?
Some of Vettriano's paintings are romantic; others are blatantly erotic, portraying semi-naked women and fully-dressed men. His work has been compared to the realist paintings of Edward Hopper, although his use of colour and light differs and he does not have the mastery or skill of Hopper in conveying either perspective or depth, providing instead impassive backdrops. Although both artists deal in figurative painting, Hopper's people seem to be alienated from each other while Vettriano is keen to show their relationships. His paintings have been described as narratives - as indeed were the paintings of the 19th-century realists such as Millet, who portrayed the people of his time to reflect his impression of society. However, Vettriano's people do not reflect our society, but his own fantasy.
As a child Vettriano enjoyed drawing but it was not until a girlfriend gave him a set of watercolours for his 21st birthday that he began to really enjoy painting. He taught himself, emerging from an unlikely family background of coal mining to exhibit his work in cities around the world.
Vettriano paints in oils and works feverishly to complete a painting in one sitting. He likes to finish before the paint is dry and never returns to make changes. A prolific artist, he can produce up to three paintings in a week.
However, his art is controversial. Prints of Vettriano's work are so popular they are reputed to have sold more widely than those of either Monet or Van Gogh, but popular art is not necessarily good art and critics have ridiculed his work. None of his paintings hang in national galleries, and his work has been described as lacking perspective, depth and texture, and having a uniformity of style that borders on monotonous.
In 2005 the rediscovery of an artist's textbook, The Illustrators' Figure Reference Manual, opened the doors of criticism further. Vettriano had, it appeared, copied photographs of people from this manual and imposed them on to different landscapes. Figures in The Singing Butler were identified as similar to those in three of the photographs from the book and it seemed he had simply positioned the original separate figures together to form a composite picture. Further examination of his earlier paintings revealed similar working methods, raising the question of originality. Critics proclaimed him a charlatan and said his work was amateurish and lacking in any true artistic style or direction.
Vettriano's argument was that as a struggling artist he could not afford real-life models and so he had used the next best thing - photographs. The act of using the figures and transposing them into a different scene was, he argued, a creative act. However, though Vettriano's popularity does not seem to have been affected by such controversy, whether his work as an artist will withstand the test of time remains to be seen.
l Jacqueline Harrett is a freelance educational consultant
JACK VETTRIANO BORN 1951
The man originally known as Jack Hoggan was born the son of a miner in Fife, Scotland. He had no formal art training but in 1988 he submitted two paintings to the Royal Scottish Academy's summer exhibition under his mother's maiden name, Vettriano. Both paintings sold within hours and his fame grew rapidly after that. He is now routinely described as one of Britain's most popular artists, despite lacking the acceptance of many critics and the art establishment.
Art and design
KS1 Paste different shades of orange, yellow, grey and white tissue paper on to a piece of sugar paper to form a landscape. Cut out figures from a magazine and paste them on top to make a collage.
KS2 Using chalks, create a background similar to that in The Singing Butler.
Draw and paint figures using pastels and watercolours on top, then evaluate the effects of the different mediums.
KS 34 Using a digital camera, take a full-length photograph of a friend. Place the image on a similar background to the one used in The Singing Butler.
Then evaluate the combination of image and background as a piece of art.
KS1 What are the characters thinking? Write thought bubbles for each of the characters in the painting.
KS2 Imagine the painting is the cover of a book. What would you call the book? Explain your reasons and then write the blurb - the short description of the story that appears on the cover.
KS 3-4 Role-play this scene. Before doing so write brief character profiles. What will the characters say to each other?
KS5 "Popular art is not real art." Discuss the arguments for and against this statement while considering the work of Jack Vettriano.