The discrepancy between popular and critical acclaim has probably ignited the debate surrounding art since the first ochre daubs were made on prehistoric cave walls. The new has always found a wealth of detractors. Manet’s Olympia (1863), Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and Emin’s My Bed (1998) were all reviled by the public even as the avant garde applauded. But from time to time the shoe is firmly on the other foot and it is the art world left looking censorious and priggish — a state of affairs no better exampled in recent years than by the phenomenal rise of Scottish painter Jack Vettriano.
Without doubt one of the most recognized and popular British artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Vettriano’s images are more reproduced than almost any other artist in the history of art. Yet, although his works fetch huge sums at auction, he is still largely ignored by the Establishment, with only two Vettrianos in public collections.
Born in Fife, Vettriano left school at 16 to become a mining engineer, and began painting after a girlfriend gave him a box of watercolours for his 21st birthday. He would remain entirely self-taught, training himself by copying Great Masters and Impressionists and lifting poses from books and catalogues. In 1989, at the age of 38, he sold two works at the Royal Scottish Academy Summer Show. By 1992 his masterpiece, The Singing Butler (1992), had launched him into the wider public eye. Since then his world of nostalgic Art Deco-ish romance and steamy, noir sexiness has earned Vettriano an OBE and commissions to paint the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart and Zara Phillips.
No better epithet could be bestowed on Vettriano than the title of the 2004 South Bank Show, ‘Jack Vettriano: The People’s Painter’. Over recent years, the art establishment has begun to accept Vettriano’s populist allure with exhibitions at the Kirkcaldy Museum & Art Gallery in Fife, the long-term display of self-portrait, The Weight (2009), at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, and a major retrospective of his work at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow.
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