The sudden death of Thomas Kinkade on Friday prompted an outpouring of grief for the hugely successful painter of pastoral landscapes. His passing also has shined a reflective light on his troubled final years — even as posthumous sales of his work begin to soar.
An autopsy was performed Monday on the man known as the “Painter of Light” for his signature soft-focus landscapes and seascapes that critics dismissed as kitsch but which nonetheless fetched upward of $10,000 a piece. Autopsy results were being withheld pending further testing, the Associated Press reported.
“My paintings are messengers of God’s love. Nature is simply the language which I speak,” said Kinkade, whose family said the 54-year-old artist died alone at his home in Los Gatos near San Francisco, and that his death appeared to be from natural causes.
An art-school dropout from a broken home, Kinkade became a born-again Christian in 1980, and shortly afterward started peddling his inspirational landscapes out of the trunk of his car.
“It was almost as if God became my art agent. He basically gave me ideas,” the artist told USA Today in 2002. One of those ideas was mass marketing his canvases to the point that he was recognized as the most-collected living artist — and one of the richest.
After years of his popularity being on the wane, the spotlight is back on his paintings.
Over the weekend, galleries that sell Kinkade’s work were reporting a surge in sales, the AP said. Outlets across the country said they’re calling in extra help to handle unprecedented demand from customers placing orders in person, on the phone and online.
At Kinkade’s original gallery in his hometown of Placerville, Calif., co-owner Nathan Ross said that a Kinkade original sold over the weekend for $150,000, according to AP reports. John Vassallo, who owns five Kinkade galleries in New York and New Jersey, said sales Saturday reached half his typical sales for the entire month of December.
That’s saying something, considering how well Kinkade sold a decade ago, during the height of his popularity. At one point, Kinkade’s factories churned out as many as 500 reproductions a day of his most beloved works, which then sold for thousands of dollars in Kinkade’s galleries. He became a best-selling author and inspirational speaker, and he designed a housing complex of $400,000 homes inspired by his paintings.
In recent years, financial troubles and erratic behavior began overwhelming the idyllic images. Kinkade was accused of behaving inappropriately with women and urinating on a Winnie-the-Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim — an especially odd occurrence for a man who compared himself to Walt Disney, as well as Norman Rockwell, the illustrator of iconic Americana.
In a 2006 letter to his gallery owners, he denied some charges but chalked up the rest to drinking and overeating caused by stress, adding that “with God’s help and the support of my family and friends, I have returned balance to my life.”
In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating Kinkade for allegedly defrauding investors. In 2010, his company’s manufacturing arm filed for bankruptcy protection. Also that year, Kinkade was reportedly arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
Despite the problems, Kinkade managed to amass legions of fans, whom he jokingly referred to as a “cult,” and professional critics could never dent his popularity. “Art is forever,” Kinkade told “60 Minutes” in 2007. “It goes front and center on your wall, where every day the rest of your life you see that image.”