Thomas Kinkade (born January 19, 1958 in Sacramento, California) is an American painter of realistic, bucolic, and idyllic subjects.
Kinkade is most notable for the mass marketing of his work as printed reproductions and other licensed products via the Media Arts Group, Inc. (a public company in which Kinkade is a primary investor). He is self described as "Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light" (a trademarked phrase), and as "America's most-collected living artist".
He has received criticism for the extent to which he has commercialized his art (for example, selling his prints on the QVC home shopping network). Others have written that his paintings are merely kitsch, without substance, and described it as chocolate box art.
Kinkade grew up in the small town of Placerville, California, graduated from high school in 1976, and attended the University of California, Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He married his wife Nanette in 1982 and the couple went on to have four daughters: Merritt (b. 1988), Chandler (b. 1991), Winsor (b. 1995) and Everett (b. 1997).
Some of the people who mentored and taught him long before college were Charles Bell and Glenn Wessels. Wessels encouraged Kinkade to go to the University of California at Berkeley, which Kinkade did. Two years into college Kinkade dropped out.
He spent a summer on a sketching tour with a college friend, producing an instructional book, The Artist's Guide to Sketching. The success of the book landed him at Ralph Bakshi Studios creating background art for the 1983 animated feature film Fire and Ice. While working on the film, Kinkade began to explore the depiction of light and of imagined worlds. After the film, Kinkade earned his living as a painter, selling his originals in galleries throughout California.
Artistic themes and style
A key feature of Thomas Kinkade's paintings are their glowing highlights and saturated pastel colors. Rendered in an impressionist style cross-pollinated with American Scene Painting values, his works often portray bucolic, idyllic settings such as gardens, streams, stone cottages, and Main Streets. His hometown of Placerville (where his works are omnipresent) is the setting of many of his street and snow scenes. He has also depicted various Christian themes including the Christian cross and churches.
Kinkade says he is placing emphasis on the value of simple pleasures and that his intent is to communicate inspirational, life-affirming messages through his work. A self-described "devout Christian" (all of his children have the middle name "Christian"), Kinkade has said he gains his inspiration from his religious beliefs and that his work is intended to contain a larger moral dimension. Many pictures contain specific chapter-and-verse allusions to certain Bible passages.
Curator Mike McGee has written:
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 — he cites his mother as a key influence and archetypal audience — and to couple this with savvy marketing… 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.
Artist and Guggenheim Fellow Jeffrey Vallance has spoken about Kinkade's devout religious themes and their reception in the art world.
This is another area that the contemporary art world has a hard time with, that I find interesting. He expresses what he believes and puts that in his art. That is not the trend in the high-art world at the moment, the idea that you can express things spiritually and be taken seriously… It is always difficult to present serious religious ideas in an art context. That is why I like Kinkade. It is a difficult thing to do.
Essayist Joan Didion is a representative critic of Kinkade's style:
A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It 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.
She goes on to compare the "Kinkade Glow" to the luminism of 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt, who sentimentalized the infamous Donner Pass in his Donner Lake from the Summit. Didion worries that Kinkade's own treatment of the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains Declare His Glory, likewise mocks the tragedy of the Yosemite's Sierra Miwok Indians.
At the bottom of most of Kinkade's paintings near his signed name is a number. That number refers to the number of hidden "N's" in the painting. N is a symbol of his wife's first name Nanette.
Kinkade’s success started in the 1990s, when he and his friend Kenneth Raasch started Media Arts Group. Eight years later the company was listed in Forbes as a top ten business to watch. When Kinkade was on QVC, he sold over $2 million worth of products in one hour.
His works are sold by mail order and in dedicated retail outlets as high-quality prints, often using texturizing techniques on real canvas to make the surface of the finished prints mimic the raised surface of the original painting. Some of the prints also feature light effects that are painted onto the print surface by hand by "skilled craftsmen," touches that add to the illusion of light and the resemblance to an original work of art. Kinkade's images are also used extensively on other merchandise such as calendars and greeting cards.
Reproductions of his paintings can also be found in almost any place that sells artwork. Licensing with Hallmark and other corporations have made it possible for his paintings to be anywhere from greeting cards to La-Z-Boys.
Kinkade is reported to have earned $53 million for his artistic work in the period 1997 to May 2005.
Criticism of business practices
Kinkade's company, Media Arts Group Inc., has been accused of unfair dealings with owners of Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises. In 2006, an arbitration board awarded Karen Hazlewood and Jeffrey Spinello $860,000 due to Kinkade's company "[failing] to disclose material information" that would have discouraged them from investing in the gallery. The plaintiffs and other former gallery owners have also leveled accusations of being pressured to open additional galleries that were financially unviable, being forced to take on expensive, unsalable inventory, and being undercut by discount outlets whose prices they were not allowed to match.
Kinkade has denied the accusations and Media Arts Group has successfully defended itself in previous suits by other former gallery owners. Kinkade himself was not singled out in the finding of fraud by the arbitration board.
In August 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating these issues, with agents from offices across the country conducting interviews.
Former gallery dealers also charge that Kinkade uses Christianity as a tool to take advantage of people. "They really knew how to bait the hook," said one ex-dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They certainly used the Christian hook." One former dealers' lawyer stated "Most of my clients got involved with Kinkade because it was presented as a religious opportunity. Being defrauded is awful enough, but doing it in the name of God is really despicable."
In 2001 Media Arts unveiled "The Village at Hiddenbrooke", a Thomas Kinkade-themed community of homes, to be built outside of Vallejo, California in partnership with the international construction firm Taylor Woodrow.
Kinkade has been involved with a number of charitable and philanthropic organizations. In 1992 he was awarded the World Children's Center Humanitarian Award and in 1994 received the Eugene Freedman Humanitarian Award from the National Association of Limited Edition Dealers. In 1993 he was chosen to be the national spokesman of the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
The Los Angeles Times report that some of Kinkade's former colleagues, employees, and even collectors of his work say that he has a long history of cursing and heckling other artists and performers. The Times further reports that he openly groped a woman's breasts at a South Bend, Indiana sales event, and mentioned his proclivity for ritual territory marking through urination. Kinkade denied some of the Times's allegations, but accepted and apologized for others.
In 2006 John Dandois, Media Arts Group executive, recounted a story that on one occasion ("about six years ago") Kinkade became drunk at a Siegfried and Roy magic show in Las Vegas and began shouting "Codpiece! Codpiece!" at the performers. Eventually he was calmed by his mother. Dandois also said of Kinkade, "Thom would be fine, he would be drinking, and then all of a sudden, you couldn't tell where the boundary was, and then he became very incoherent, and he would start cussing and doing a lot of weird stuff."
In popular culture
Kinkade's pieces are extremely popular in the United States among evangelical Christians. In Kinkade's own words:
There's been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn't been, until now, million-seller art. We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand.
In early 2006, Joel Kilpatrick released his book A Field Guide to Evangelicals and Their Habitat. A light-hearted cultural criticism done in the handbook format similar to The Official Preppy Handbook of the 1980s, the book says that evangelicals tend to favor a particular home decor style centered around Thomas Kinkade paintings (the bigger, the better) and Precious Moments figurines.
In Heath and Potter's book The Rebel Sell, Kinkade's art is described as "so awful it must be seen to be believed."
Kinkade's art is parodied on the comedy website Something Awful.