William Thomas Kinkade III (January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012) was an American realist, pastoral, and idyllic painter. He is most known for the Thomas Kinkade Company’s success in mass marketing his art as printed replicas and other licensed products throughout his lifetime. According to Kinkade’s company, one out of every twenty American households owns a reproduction of one of his paintings.
Kinkade referred to himself as a “Painter of Light,” a term he trademarked but that had previously been applied to the English artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). Some of Kinkade’s personality and business tactics were condemned, and art critics criticized his work as “kitsch.” At the age of 54, Kinkade died of “acute intoxication” caused by alcohol and the medication diazepam.
Science Explains Why It’s So Easy to Despise Thomas Kinkade, the “Painter of Light”
You have to sympathize with Thomas Kinkade: Throughout his career, the self-proclaimed Painter of Light was accused of being a hack whose paintings belonged in a Walmart bin rather than a museum. His attractive, bucolic artworks have been slammed by critics as sugary, unpleasantly fake, and something “normal” people should avoid. The Washington Post noted that many people thought his work to be the “epitome of poor art” when he died of an alcohol-and-Valium overdose last year.
People are still berating Kinkade now that he’s on the cold, cold ground. The newest slap in the face comes from an international alliance of academics who have been studying human reactions to Kinkade’s paintings since at least 2011. The long-suffering academics submitted research in the British Journal of Aesthetics this spring, which is garnering a lot of attention right now, questioning if people will like Kinkade’s paintings more if they see them again and over again.
Kinkade was a born-again Christian who mined the same delightful vein of idyllic American life that Norman Rockwell had plundered decades before. Infusing his works with light emanating from every available surface – mainly trees, fields, and barns in rural scenes – and burying the names of family members in the environment were among his artistic techniques. The creative establishment disliked him, but American customers were so enthralled by his appealing vision that they spent $100 million per year on his creations. Kinkade’s paintings are said to be in ten million homes throughout the country, earning him the title of “most-collected living artist of his time” on his website.
Thomas Kinkade, the Painter Who Art Critics Despised but Whom America Adored
Imagine a world far, far away from the daily assault of terrible news, where sparkling cottages are nestled in dense flower beds or on rocky outcroppings by the sea. This is a land that is unaffected by tsunamis and earthquakes, and it is cut off from the political rhetoric that divides nations and families.
If it sounds beautiful to you, that’s because it was to artist Thomas Kinkade when he began painting his now-famous sugary-sweet landscapes in the 1980s. In 2001, he told the New York Times, “[My paintings] invite you into this universe that presents an alternative to your nightly news program.” “People are reminded that the world isn’t all ugliness.”
Kinkade’s light-drenched, paradisiacal settings do indeed depict a vacation from harsh realities, and millions of Americans have been fascinated by them. According to Kinkade’s company, one out of every twenty houses in the United States has a Kinkade painting, print, or tchotchke imprinted with his art and name. If the figures are correct, he will be the most-collected artist in America, much to the chagrin of innumerable fine art critics who have dismissed his work as cutesy, schlocky, or outright kitsch.
“There have been million-copy books and million-copy CDs.” But there hasn’t been million-seller art till now,” Kinkade told 60 Minutes reporter Morley Safer in 2001. And Kinkade made a lot of money. Thomas Kinkade Company (now Thomas Kinkade Studios) was previously a publicly-traded company that made a fortune selling prints on QVC and licensing images to companies like Disney, Hallmark, and La-Z-Boy furniture. “We have found a method to deliver an art that millions of people can understand,” he said in the interview.
Despite Kinkade’s insistence on accessibility, his work (and the ensuing controversy) has come to symbolize deeply controversial aspects of contemporary culture—namely, the difficult intersection of populism and elitism. “It’s impossible not to see him as someone who did a lot to inflame culture wars and make a lot of money articulating to people that they were on the outside, that people were looking down on them, that the art world was laughing at them,” said Alexis Boylan, editor of Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, a 2011 book that collected scholarly essays on Kinkade’s work and influence.
However, in order to comprehend Kinkade’s method, we must first go back to his beginnings. Kinkade grew up in the 1960s in the little town of Placerville, California, and was known to his friends and admirers as Thom. Kinkade and his siblings were raised by their single mother in relative poverty after their father abandoned the family. Denise Sanders, who worked alongside Kinkade for 15 years until his death in 2012, told Artsy, “His mother did her best to raise three kids, but he always craved for the home that had the lights on, all the fireplaces lit—for a nice, homey vibe.” (Thomas Kinkade Studios is still where she works.)
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