Thomas Kinkade, wildly successful artist of cozy scenes, dies at 54


Artist Thomas Kinkade unveils his painting, “Prayer For Peace,” at the opening of the exhibit “From Abraham to Jesus,” in Atlanta in 2005. Kinkade, whose brushwork paintings of idyllic landscapes, cottages and churches have been big sellers for dealers across the United States, died Friday, a family spokesman said. He was 54. (Gene Blythe/AP)
April 7, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings and prints of cozy scenes of domestic contentment made him perhaps the most popular artist of our time, died April 6 at his home in Los Gatos, Calif. He was 54.

A statement released by his family did not specify a cause of death.

Mr. Kinkade found huge success in the late 1990s by marketing his works through television infomercials and establishing a nationwide chain of galleries that sold his prints in limited editions.

He called himself “the nation’s most collected living artist” and claimed that his work could be found in at least one out of every 20 homes in the United States. He expanded his enterprise to include countless other products, from mugs and watches to calendars, greeting cards, puzzles, commemorative plates, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, themed housing developments and even an autobiographical feature film, with Peter O’Toole playing his art teacher.

With his varied artistic and business interests, Mr. Kinkade was something of a combination of Norman Rockwell, Walt Disney and household gadget huckster Ron Popeil. A millionaire many times over, he was the only artist to have a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

His paintings of cottages, gardens and landscapes that seemed to glow from within struck a “vein of pure gold in America’s heartland,” in the words of “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer.

Mr. Kinkade was so adept at recreating the effects of light in his artwork that he trademarked the phrase “painter of light.” Receptionists at his company answered the telephone by saying, “Thank you for sharing the light.”

He was revered by legions of fans, who often said they had profound experiences while viewing Mr. Kinkade’s idealized paintings of snow-covered cottages, quaint villages or pastoral scenes at sunset. He often said he wanted his work to be inspirational and sometimes included overtly Christian themes and symbols in his paintings.

“My paintings provide hope to people in despair, provide a reminder of the beauty of God’s creation despite the darkness surrounding our lives,” he told the New York Times in 1999.

Despite the devoted following that numbered in the millions, Mr. Kinkade was not taken seriously by most critics.

“He has a vocabulary, as most painters do,” San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker once wrote. “It’s a vocabulary of formulas, unfortunately.”

Mr. Kinkade’s artworks were reproduced by the thousands, many with market-proven themes. No fewer than seven of his paintings had “cottage” in the title, and others featured storms, bridges and “hometown” scenes.

His “earliest hero,” he said, was Rockwell, who painted winsome scenes of Americana for the Saturday Evening Post and who has slowly gained critical acceptance since his death in 1978. Mr. Kinkade, however, focused almost exclusively on landscapes and houses, seldom painting the human figure.

“A Kinkade painting,” cultural critic Joan Didion wrote in “Where I Was From,” her 2003 book, “typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.”

Mr. Kinkade believed his art offered an alternative to the “ugliness of the world.”

“I have faith in the heart of the average person,” he told the New Yorker in 2001. “People find hope and comfort in my paintings.”

William Thomas Kinkade III was born Jan. 19, 1958, in Sacramento and grew up in nearby Placerville, Calif. He and a brother and sister were raised by a single mother.

He showed early artistic talent and began selling his drawings for $2 apiece when he was 14. He attended the University of California at Berkeley for two years, then graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

Mr. Kinkade traveled across the country in 1980 and two years later produced “The Artist’s Guide to Sketching” with artist James Gurney. He helped illustrate the animated film “Fire and Ice” in 1982 before devoting himself to painting.

By 2000, Mr. Kinkade’s varied business interests were taking in as much as $250 million a year, according to some accounts. He wrote devotional books and in 1998 illustrated a Christmas book written by evangelist Billy Graham.

He often spoke of the importance of faith in his family. Survivors include his wife, Nanette Willey Kinkade, whom he married in 1982, and their four daughters.

“I am a symbol of a good life that people dream of and maybe haven’t been able to achieve,” Mr. Kinkade told the Los Angeles Times in 2000.

But within a few years, his commercial and personal lives began to crumble. The value of his company fell so much that he bought it back for $32 million. In 2006, his company was ordered to pay millions of dollars for defrauding the owners of two Virginia art galleries.

Four years later, when his production company declared bankruptcy to avoid the $3 million judgment, the gallery owners’ lawyer described Mr. Kinkade as “a deadbeat.”

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the self-described “Painter of Light” had a dark side. Former colleagues said Mr. Kinkade often became intoxicated at bars and strip clubs and shouted obscenities at his employees. Several witnesses said they had seen Mr. Kinkade fondle a woman’s breasts.

Once, in Las Vegas, Mr. Kinkade began shouting from the audience at the popular illusionists Siegfried and Roy during their performance. In 2010, he was arrested for drunk driving in California.

“I’m a cultural spokesperson along the lines of Will Rogers,” Mr. Kinkade said in 2008. “I tour around and give people hope.”

In 2010, the investment Web site theStreet.com did not give Mr. Kinkade’s collectors much hope for future riches. His paintings and prints were included on a list of nine “completely worthless collectibles.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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