Friday saw the death of Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed (and trademarked) “Painter Of Light” who sought to turn art into a mass-marketed commodity that even those who had no interest in or understanding of art could appreciate, to incredible success. Kinkade died at the age of 54 of reported “natural causes,” according to his family—although given his relatively young age and no known illnesses, an official cause of death is awaiting the autopsy.
Kinkade once estimated (and his obituaries have repeated) that one in 20 American homes held his paintings, with the untold millions more Kinkade-bedecked coffee cups, jigsaw puzzles, and other assorted tchotchkes scattered across the landscape making him one of the most widely seen contemporary artists in the world. At the root of Kinkade’s popularity was his uncanny ability to satisfy—some might say pander to—his customers’ cravings for comfort and sentimentality: Kinkade’s paintings were almost purely decorative, full of easy-on-the-eye idyllic scenes of snowy cottages or old wooden churches, surrounded in a dreamlike smeary haze, and devoid of any discernible personality.
His deliberately anti-style style was a rejection, Kinkade would say, of the notion that art should be a means of self-expression for the artist, a view of the purpose of creativity that Kinkade dismissed as “odious.” Instead, Kinkade sought to create the most broadly appealing art he could muster, seeking only to please and pacify his audience by removing all hint of subtext or other evidence of himself from his paintings—other than their being bathed in Kinkade’s signature glowing light, of course.
That light, Kinkade would say, represented the light of God penetrating the darkness, as well as a literal translation of Jesus being “the light of the world”—and this was the other aspect of Kinkade’s art that made him so popular. An evangelical Christian (one so devout he gave all of his children the middle name “Christian”), Kinkade repeatedly posited that all of his paintings contained a “moral dimension” to their otherwise-innocuous pastoral blandness. Kinkade sold his art with the idea that it represented traditional values of faith, peace, and a simpler way of living. Some made this explicit through depictions of Christian iconography or allusions to specific Bible passages. With others, it was simply implied through Kinkade’s savvy marketing.
Kinkade’s conversion to being a born-again Christian was, in Kinkade’s frequent retelling, the origin of the sea change in his career, which had truly begun with Kinkade working with Dinotopia creator James Gurney on the bestselling The Artist’s Guide To Sketching before contributing backgrounds to Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta’s Fire And Ice. His spiritual awakening also led to his smartest business move: Positioning himself as an opponent to the elitism of fine art, Kinkade rejected the entire gallery system and instead began focusing on retail distribution in shopping malls, as well as creating inexpensive prints and other mass-market copies of his work that could be produced by assistants, like a Wal-Mart version of Andy Warhol. Kinkade saw his factory-inspired creative process as part of the overall mission to bring his messages of peace and pastel beauty to as many millions of people as he could—and as he himself put it, to give them “art they can understand.”
Not surprisingly, that mission—and implicit suggestion that his audience is stupid—has often been derided by art critics who see no inherent value in producing such mail-order mediocrity, creating works seemingly expressly intended to adorn cheap drugstore calendars, and striving for nothing besides producing inoffensive kitsch. But Kinkade definitely saw the value, to the tune of approximately $100 million in annual revenue—and, by Kinkade’s estimation, being the most collected artist in America. Such widespread popular support certainly made it easy to dismiss the tongue-clucking of art snobs who turned up their noses at Kinkade, and it goes without saying that Kinkade’s untold millions of fans couldn’t care less about such opinions either, wanting only the warm and comforting familiarity (with a dash of moral righteousness and patriotism) that Kinkade so ably provided.
Of course, it was slightly harder for Kinkade to dismiss the numerous lawsuits and FBI investigations that accused him of underhanded business practices, many stemming from the owners of his Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises. Over the years, Kinkade’s company was forced to answer to numerous allegations that he’d defrauded authorized Kinkade dealers—and most damning of all, by exploiting their Christianity to present their getting into the Kinkade business as a “religious opportunity,” then conning them into taking on unreasonable, unsellable quantities of Kinkade’s work at fixed prices on pure faith. Most of these owners claimed Kinkade had ruined them financially “in the name of God”—a series of accusations that Kinkade dismissed as a “smear campaign” (with no trace of irony), despite also settling some of them.
The controversies for Kinkade didn’t stop there: An excoriating L.A. Times profile in 2006 delved into many accounts of how Kinkade’s upstanding, moral image was just a front for a man with many demons, most of them related to his drinking. Among these were allegations of his groping a female fan, and—most colorfully—an incident in which a drunken Kinkade reportedly began heckling a Siegfried And Roy magic show by screaming, “Codpiece! Codpiece!” Still another told the story of Kinkade—reportedly given to "ritual territory marking"—pissing on a Winnie The Pooh statue at a Disneyland Hotel while muttering, “This one’s for you, Walt.”
Kinkade never addressed any of these reports directly, although he did issue an email to licensed Kinkade dealers dismissing “exaggerated, and in some cases outright fabricated personal accusations”—never specifying which accusations those were. In the same email, he also apologized for a period of his life in which he said he “overindulged.” Kinkade insisted that period was behind him, although a 2010 arrest for DUI suggested otherwise, while also adding another stain to his reputation.
Still, Kinkade’s personal peccadilloes, dubious business practices, and unapologetic appeals to his audience’s basest desires for unchallenging sentimentality—all of these presumably dark aspects of the “Painter Of Light” mattered and continue to matter little to his followers. And certainly, Kinkade balanced his alleged sins with his laudable charity work with organizations like the Salvation Army, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the Points Of Light Foundation. And while skeptics may sneer at his regularly comparing himself to other people-pleasers like Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney, Kinkade’s popularity really did put him on a similar populist scale, leading to him being officially commissioned to commemorate many of the nation’s milestones and landmarks—everything from Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary to the National Christmas Tree to the farewell of Yankee Stadium.
Kinkade also made his own landmark with the construction of the Vallejo, Calif.-area “Village At Hiddenbrooke,” a Kinkade-inspired town of comfortingly generic houses. And Kinkade’s life story has even already sort-of been told in the (self-produced) movie Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage, in which a young Kinkade (played by Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki) is urged by Peter O’Toole to “paint the light, Thomas! Paint the light!”
And that’s exactly what Thomas did: He painted the light, and that light shines on in the living rooms of undiscerning folks who just want something pretty and comforting to look at, and who regularly find it in Kinkade’s aggressive coziness, no matter what his detractors say. Given that Kinkade’s art long ago became an industry unto itself—passed on to Kinkade-certified “Master Highlighters” who can replicate that Kinkade magic (for a premium price)—it seems likely that that unnatural, inexplicably sourced light will continue to shine for a long, long time.