Stories in Paint

by | January 21, 2021 | General | 2 comments

“The Singing Butler” by Jack Vettriano

Fair use,

I’m sure you’ve seen the image above. Certainly I had, but until a few days ago I didn’t really know anything about Jack Vettriano, the artist who created it. I’ve always liked the painting, though. Beneath its light-hearted quirkiness, one senses an enigma. Who are the couple dancing? Why are they on the beach? What do the maid and the “butler” of the title think about their frivolous employers? Are they jealous? Resentful? Or is this just another day in the life of a servant? The painting clearly has a story behind it – possibly several.

Last week I was browsing in my favorite used bookstore and happened upon a coffee table art book of Vettriano’s work. As I leafed through the gorgeous volume of high quality reproductions, I found myself spellbound. Vettriano may be most famous for the sunny image above, but many of his other paintings have a very different vibe. They’re dark, sensuous, intimate – detailed portrayals of sex and love, desperation and ennui. The best are erotic gems, complex vignettes frozen by the painter’s brush.

Vettriano is my contemporary. He was only a child during the fifties, but most of the scenes he paints seem to be set just post-WWII. They brim with a sort of bitter nostalgia. The women wear permed hair, dirndl skirts, ball gowns, high heels; the men sport wide lapels and fedoras. The details are meticulously rendered. And every painting seems to have a story behind it.

In “After the Thrill is Gone”, a glamorous woman in a strapless gown and heels sprawls on a couch, exhausted or perhaps in despair, a cigarette smoldering in her graceful fingers. Has she returned home from one party too many, drained by the superficiality of her life in the fast lane? Has she just dismissed her lover, bored by his attentions? Or is she the one who has been rejected?

Altar of Memory” is disturbing, almost perverse. An older man in a suit embraces a shapely, headless mannequin wearing a powder-blue gown. Was this his wife’s dress? His mistress’s? Did the absent woman die, or simply leave him for someone else? There’s a champagne flute on the table, a mirror on the wall. Whoever she was, one can almost imagine him stripping off the dress to make love to her mute simulacrum.

Beautiful Losers” presents us with what has to be a ménage a trois. On the right a man in a vest and shirt sleeves embraces a slender blonde, burying his face in her nape while he pulls her against his body. On the left, another man watches them, attentive despite his smoking butt and casually dangling leg. Is he waiting his turn? Judging? Giving instructions? And what about the woman? Is she the seated man’s wife, loaned to his friend? I could see that. Or perhaps she has been hired for their joint pleasure. Her arms are crossed over her breasts, perhaps in a gesture of self-protection, but possibly to make it easier for her to slip the straps of her gown off her shoulders.

Couple X” are clearly in the throes of lust. But who are they when they’re not lost in the intoxication of each other’s bodies?

At Last My Lovely” is even more enigmatic. The beautiful blonde strokes her lover’s cheek while his hand rests upon her bare knee. Meanwhile, her shadow looms over them, dripping with menace.

I hope you’ve taken the time to check out these images on Vettriano’s website. I couldn’t include them in the post for copyright reasons. Do you see the stories in them, the way I do? Erotic stories, in many cases, though perhaps not with happy endings?

Needless to say, given his subject matter, Jack Vettriano is controversial. Though he received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth in 2003 (he is Scottish), he has also been panned by prudish critics as a purveyor of “badly conceived soft porn”, and a painter of “dim erotica”. Of course, that doesn’t bother me, given that I believe sex is one of the most important subjects for art.

Indeed, one of the reasons I found his images so thrilling was that they triggered all sorts of story ideas. I thought I’d finish this post by sharing a flasher I just wrote in response to his 2006 creation “A Very Married Woman”.

A Very Married Woman

By Lisabet Sarai

Same time next Wednesday?” As she fixes her hair and make-up, she doesn’t bother to look at him. She’s gotten what she came for.

Sure.” That’s what he says, not what he thinks. She’s drained him twice in the past hour, once with her mouth, once with her wicked cunt, but it’s not enough, not nearly. Stay, he wants to tell her. Let me devour you. Let me hold you. She’d just laugh.

Nothing outside this room matters anymore. This is the only place he’s alive. Things that used to thrill him – the deals, the chase, the triumphant days and the glittering nights – mean nothing. Once a week, for an hour or two, his monochrome world turns Technicolor. Then gray shadows close in again.

How did this happen? When did simple, healthy lust morph into obsession? When they’re apart, he dreams of her sleek thighs. He wakes with her perfume in his nostrils.

I think Fred’s getting suspicious.” A teasing smile on her ripe, bruised lips. “Maybe we should stop.”

No!” He leaps to his feet and encircles her with desperate arms. “Forget about him!”

Silly! Got to go pick up the kids.”

Her quick kiss shatters him.

What about you? Do any of these paintings – or the hundreds of others showcased on his website – inspire you? If so, why not create a flasher to capture your inspiration? You can share the flasher in a comment here on the blog. Or post it next Sunday on the Storytime critique list, where Sundays are devoted to flash fiction and poetry.

Not a member of Storytime? You can sign up here:

I’m eager to taste the stories you see in these provocative images.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Jean Roberta

    These paintings do look like illustrations of stories, Lisabet. I have a colleague in the English Department of the local university who teaches a creative writing course on “ekphrastic” writing: words based on visual art. There are actually quite a few of those in the “canon” of poems that are usually taught in school. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats, and “Musee de Beaux Arts” by Auden come to mind.

    Your flasher really seems to capture the tension between the man and the woman in the painting.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      “ekphrastic”! What a wonderful word!

      In fact I’m not a very visual person, so it’s quite rare for me to be inspired by a painting or other work of art. Sometimes, however, there’s a mysterious connection that you can’t explain.

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