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Saturday Art: Thomas Kinkade “Painter of Light,” Kitsch, Dead at 54

Artist Thomas Kinkade–whose paintings featured bucolic, idealized landscapes and homespun visions fraught with cloyingly twee Christian themes, as though Rick Santorum’s frothy dream of America spilled out of his well-lubed head and splattered on a canvas–has died at age 54. And the faux-art market world is one ego smaller.

Calling himself  “The Painter of Light,” a phrase originally used to described the 18th-century classical painter J.M.W. Turner and copyrighted by “Thom” (as he liked to spell his diminutive), Kinkade graduated from Art Center of Design in Pasadena, and began his lucrative career by painting insipid landscapes his mother would like and selling them out of the trunk of his car in parking lots.  He cited both Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol as his inspirations. His career, which earned him over $50 million, left a sad trail of bankruptcies and disillusioned acolytes, while his vapid art earned him the sobriquet “Painter of Lite.”

Kinkade’s works were mass marketed on puzzles, tree ornaments, gift cards and assorted other pop culture items, including furniture, as well as being (the horror the horror) used as guides for planned communities, and sold through television on QVC. He also launched a series of franchise galleries peddling high-end mass-produced reproductions of his art, which were created at various price markers. Each image:

is digitally photographed, transferred onto a plastic-like surface and glued onto canvas. Each print visits “highlight artists,” mostly Hispanic and Asian hourly workers. In a paint-by-number style, they add a dot of red to a tree here, a dash of white to an interior light there…

There are nine versions of each reproduced image, from Standard Numbered editions, for a few hundred dollars, to Studio Proofs that feature a textured canvas, more highlighting and Kinkade’s machine-etched signature — compete with his DNA, courtesy of mixing the ink with the painter’s hair and blood.

In 2003, Karen Hazlewood and Jeff Spinello

sued the artist and his company, then called Media Arts Group Inc., alleging that he’d used his Christian faith as a tool to fraudulently induce them to invest in a Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery…From 1997 through May 2005, as many of the galleries failed, Kinkade reaped more than $50 million from his prints and licensed product lines, according to testimony in the case. By then, the number of Signature Galleries had dwindled to fewer than half of what they once numbered…Kinkade was not singled out in the panel’s fraud finding, but it noted that he and others at the company created “a certain religious environment” designed to get prospective gallery owners to trust the company.

Instead of paying the couple, Kinkade’s Pacific Metro Company filed for bankruptcy, which put an automatic stay on payment of the judgement. Kinkade’s lawyers had  appealed to the Supreme Court to set aside the judgment, but the Court upheld the award.

A hardcore Christian–his four daughters all have “Christian” as the middle name–Kinkade claimed to derive inspiration for his many of  paintings from Biblical verses, and saw his paintings as a kind of evangelism. And a way to make money.

If my work became unpopular tomorrow, I’d receive that message. And because I’m a servant of art, I’d say to our culture, ‘Culture, how can I reflect who this nation is and what it needs?’ And then I’d go deliver it.

In 2010 Kinkade was arrested for a DUI. His family says the artist died of natural causes. And if he rises on Sunday, the art world is in big trouble. features some wondrous parodies of Kinkade’s paintings.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.