In so many of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, light shone through the darkness. Shine a light on the painter’s legacy, though, and you’ll see a deeply polarizing figure, both revered and reviled for his contribution to American art.

To his fans — and there are many of them, so many that one estimate puts a Thomas Kinkade painting in one of every 20 houses in America — Kinkade was an entry into an art world that shut many Americans out. Many people uninitiated into the language of contemporary art can find it to be a bewildering, snobbish and distasteful scene, full of “My kid could do that” conceptual works whose value may have been difficult for an average viewer to grasp. Kinkade knew that most Americans wanted to buy and view art that was straightforward and pretty. His bucolic scenes of cottages, landscapes and race cars made him the most-collected contemporary artist in America.

Artist Thomas Kinkade unveils his painting "Prayer for Peace" at the opening of the exhibit "From Abraham to Jesus" in Atlanta. (Gene Blythe/AP)

But ask most art critics, and they’ll tell you that Kinkade’s work is saccharine, representational, sentimental and heavy-handed with Christian imagery. Kinkade has long been derided as the epitome of mediocre art. Despite his unquestionable fame, you will not find any of his works in any major museum.

Thomas Kinkade's "Indy Excitement, 100 Years of Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway." (AP)

Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, once said to the Wall Street Journal, “Art is not democratic. It isn’t about the biggest market share. If that were true then Thomas Kinkade would be the greatest artist who ever lived.” Robert Rosenblum, a curator at the Guggenheim, told the New York Times in 1999 that Kinkade “doesn’t look like an artist who’s worth considering, except in terms of supply and demand.”

Kinkade’s legacy is not for critics like Saltz to decide, however. Consumers, instead, may ensure that he is remembered as a man who who brought light and beauty into their homes. His Web site experienced outages after the the announcement of his death from collectors eager to scoop up his work.

"Christmas in New York" by Thomas Kinkade. (AP)