Was Thomas Kinkade, who passed away on April 6, a great American artist à la Norman Rockwell and Currier and Ives, or just one more banal genre artist among many? What is it about his ready-to-hang living room oils that people find so attractive or repulsive?
Besides paintings and lithographs, the self-named Painter of Light™ has left behind a shockingly polarized reputation – shocking, that is, for an artist who specialized in such seemingly innocuous imagery, like cottages and bucolic villages, often bathed in the pink glow of sunset. In short, you either love him or hate him.
“A lot of people felt very passionately about him, and I think that that in the art world, if a lot of people like you there immediately becomes this sort of backlash effect,” said Alexis L. Boylan, an art history professor and editor of an anthology of writings on Thomas Kinkade. “I think he also spoke very eloquently and powerfully to a lot of things that people don't want to hear about art and commercialism.”
Kinkade claimed to be the country’s most collected artist, with paintings in one out of every twenty United States homes, although most major art institutions refused to touch him. His works have been licensed many times for anything from greeting cards to Kinkade-branded floral arrangements.
“He was very clear about wanting to get his work into a lot of people’s hands and a lot of people's homes and that sort of set off some people,” said Boylan. “In addition to that some people just didn't like his work. They think his work is banal, think his work is too easy.”
Kinkade didn’t seem to care about this reputation, and for good reason. By some estimates, Kinkade’s business model, which combined factory reproductions with original pieces, brought in $100 million a year.
Taking issue with the process
One aspect of Kinkade art that many people find off-putting is the factory-like method that he employed when creating prints of his pieces. Much like artists Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons, Kinkade employed a number of studio assistants to help create multiple prints of his famous oils.
“Most major artists who are producing numerous works for patrons and museums at this point have to have studio assistants,” said Boylan. “Those studio assistants do all kinds of work, and some artists are very clear about what they exactly are producing and not producing and some are not.”
Writer Laura Miller of Salon.com puts it eloquently when she describes Kinkade’s production method as, “a semi-industrial process in which low-level apprentices embellish a prefab base provided by Kinkade.” In other words, Kinkade designed and painted all of his works, but the ones you’re likely to own were printed factory-like and touched up with manual brush strokes from someone other than Kinkade.
“Kinkade designed and painted all of his works and then they were moved into the next stage of process into prints,” said Boylan. “He did have a hand in most of the original, conceptual work that he produced.”
Still, despite this mass-produced nature of Kinkade’s work, he still remains a cultural icon. In the days after his death, Kinkade’s website and stores continue to be flooded with fans looking to purchase his art, despite media sites like “The Street” putting his works on its list of “Completely Worthless Collectibles.”
If you own a Kinkade, what do you find moving about the work? Or, if you can’t stand to think of him as an artist, what do you find so offensive?
Alexis L. Boylan, Assistant Professor in Residence, Women's Studies and Art History at the University of Connecticut; editor of “Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall,” an anthology of writings about Thomas Kinkade in relation to American art