Credit: The Thomas Kinkade Company/AP Images

Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” died April 6 of what appear to be natural causes at his home in Los Gatos, Calif. He was 54.

The painter, who claimed to be the most-collected living artist in the United States, is survived by his wife, Nanette, and four daughters. “Thom provided a wonderful life for his family,” Nanette Kinkade said in a statement. “We are shocked and saddened by his death.”

Kinkade rose to prominence in the mid ’90s as a spiritual heir to Norman Rockwell. In the more than 1,000 paintings that he produced during his career, Kinkade offered up an idyllic America That Never Was to a nostalgia-hungry audience looking for depictions of a simpler, less harried way of life. Media Arts Group, the company that licensed, distributed, and sold his products, estimates that some form of Kinkade’s art appears in 1 of every 20 American homes.

Certain motifs pop up again and again in Kinkade’s work: cottages, churches, sunny woodlands and streams, dewy country gardens, and bustling Main Streets. His signature hazy glow and glistening highlights, all the better to accent and idealize picket-fence Americana, marked him as the “Painter of Light,” a term Kinkade himself would later trademark. It’s not hard to see why he was—and remains—so popular. If America’s collective Millennial angst has been defined by rapid technological expansion but growing ideological/political/familial fragmentation, Kinkade submitted his pastoral landscapes and cozy cottages as a remedy of sorts: an ongoing suggestion that unity and identity can be found in community, family, and faith. It’s no surprise that Kinkade, a devout Christian, included not-so-subtle religious symbolism in his work, like bridges, gates, and stormy seas.

The success of Kinkade’s paintings in the ’90s resulted in a cottage industry (no pun intended) of products featuring his art. Thomas Kinkade stores popped up in dozens of malls across the U.S. to sell prints, canvas reproductions, videos, calendars, greeting cards, puzzles, night lights, and soap featuring images of his paintings in miniaturized form. It’s estimated that Kinkade’s products net an average of $100 million per year.

Kinkade was born and raised in Placerville, Calif. He suffered a tumultuous family life—an absentee father, the threat of foreclosure—that informed his later desire to depict images of familial tranquility. Much of this was captured in Kinkade’s autobiographical and unexpectedly poignant 2008 film, The Christmas Cottage, starring Peter O’Toole, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Elliott, and Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki as young Thom.

Kinkade studied art at the University of California-Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design before embarking in 1980 on a cross-country trip in a railroad boxcar with fellow artist James Gurney. The landscape drawings that resulted from that adventure formed the basis for his first book, The Artists’ Guide to Sketching. That caught the eye of cult animation director Ralph Bakshi, who hired Kinkade to paint the backdrops of his 1983 fantasy film, Fire and Ice.

Fifteen years later Kinkade would be the most famous living artist in the United States. But he quickly gained as many critics as supporters—especially within the art establishment. They decried his sentiment and the warm, fuzzy, saturated pastel light that seemed to be cast over all his subjects. In her 2003 essay collection Where I Was From, Joan Didion wrote, “[A Thomas Kinkade painting] 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.”

In contrast, Kinkade himself, in a statement on his official website, condemned the “intellectual isolation” of the artist that’s typical today. “I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy,” he said. That’s a mission that’s hard to question. If one function of the artist is to bring order from chaos, to condense reality to a more manageable, graspable form, and do so as an expression of a uniquely personal worldview, then Kinkade’s paintings very much constitute legitimate art.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Looking at a Kinkade painting is a curious experience, though. Yes, it invariably projects warmth and serenity. And yet, by and large, his paintings, even when of man-made structures, are oddly depopulated. Kinkade himself once acknowledged that the question he’s most asked is “why there are no people in my paintings.” So for all their home-spun schmaltz, there’s very much a touch of melancholy to your typical Kinkade painting. Perhaps that’s the covert realization that what’s being depicted isn’t real and never was. By his own design he distilled the American past into a kind of virtual museum, where life itself is kept at a distance, untouched, unspoiled, and unlived.

Which is funny, because his own paintings are more likely to be hung over a living-room couch than on a museum wall. And, oddly enough, that is his great achievement. Kinkade democratized the experience of art for millions of Americans who don’t live near a museum or gallery. He found a way to bring art directly to them, via those calendars, postcards and night lights, no matter how quickly all of it would be dismissed as kitsch. Sure, Kinkade’s critics resent his pastels and his Christianity—though the writer of this article is himself not religious, it seems insulting not to afford a space for faith in contemporary art— it’s his commercialism, and perhaps success, that irks them the most.

Mike McGee, director of the Grand Central Art Center at California State University, Fullerton, put it best: “Looking just at the paintings themselves, it is obvious that they are technically competent. Kinkade’s genius, however, is in his capacity to identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience….If Kinkade’s art is principally about ideas, and I think it is, it could be suggested that he is a conceptual artist. All he would have to do to solidify this position would be to make an announcement that the beliefs he has expounded are just Duchampian posturing to achieve his successes. But this will never happen. Kinkade earnestly believes in his faith in God and his personal agenda as an artist.”

Kinkade saw art as something to be lived—even if no one had ever lived the surreality he envisioned. Kinkade has no integrity because he sells his paintings on soap? Well, countless people have hung Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles on their own bedroom walls. Does that mean that Van Gogh is posthumously undermined as a result?

For all the simplicity that his art depicted, Kinkade’s work was ground zero of some of the thorniest questions still facing the art world. Does commercializing art debase it? Does making art accessible ruin it? Thomas Kinkade would have answered with a resounding “No.” And Americans opened their hearts—and pocketbooks—in affirmation.

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