Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Guilty Pleasures

Posted on 2012 April 8

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Is it an American ideal or merely kitch?

There are things we each enjoy that we can’t admit to — at least, not to our friends, who would deride us. I, for example, like such lowbrow things as Reader’s Digest, Hall & Oates music, Kentucky Fried Chicken, afternoon naps, anything chocolate, the Twilight saga, vanilla malts, and the occasional cheap cigar.

Don’t assume it’s easy for me to admit all this. Not long ago, while working for the tour of a four-man musical group, I waded into a discussion they were having about movies, mentioning an oddity in a film I’d just watched. But the film, “Nights in Rodanthe”, is a total chick flick, and the guys jumped on this, taunting me about enjoying something so girlish. I didn’t hear the end of it for days.

The point of that scene is to give you a sense of the amount of fortitude required for me to admit that I also just might happen to like … here goes … some of the paintings of Thomas Kinkade.

“Thomas Kinkade?!? Surely you’re joking, Mister Hull!” I know, I know, his paintings of cute little cottages that spill golden light from the windows, which made him the most successful and widely owned artist in America, are disdained in the art world as mere kitsch. And, yes, they do put me in mind of paintings of kittens with huge eyes, or porcelain child angels bent in maudlin prayer. Hey, I didn’t say I love them! I said I might like some of them.

“Okay, Jim, exactly what is it about Kinkade’s paintings that you like so much?” Hey, enough with the “like so much” stuff! I’m just, well … there’s something oddly alluring about those sunset-spangled homes, set about with flowers or draped in snow, that tugs at me. I suppose it’s the depiction of a kind of paradise, a perfect world of cozy serenity, presumably to be shared with loved ones (though rarely do people appear in these works), and nestled in the beauties of nature. There’s a spiritual element as well, with all that light seeping through curtains and glowing from street lamps or bursting through beclouded skies — though, again, treacly angels do come to mind. The artist styled himself as “The Painter of Light”, and some of his cottages emit such intense brightness, they look to be on fire. Quick, dial 9-1-1!

Kinkade died recently at the relatively young age of 54, which got me wondering: why, with so much success from doing exactly what he wanted in his chosen field, did he suddenly keel over? Had he been 75 or 80, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But here’s an artist whose work is cherished by millions, who was explicit about the spiritual — nay, religious — content of his paintings (he was a practicing Nazarene Christian), and whose financial success as an artist rivaled that of J.K. Rowling. Yet, poof, he’s gone. Well, maybe it’s just one of those things.

Or maybe not. It turns out his life might be an example of “Success doesn’t always bring happiness.” Now, I’m merely putting this together from what I’ve read in the media, so bear with me.

Kinkade had a weight problem; he drank heavily; he had a temper. He was famous for getting into trouble with his vendors, fast-talking them into franchises they could barely afford, then undercutting them with his own marketing efforts; he was sued. Kinkade was known to rage and browbeat his workers and associates. He contracted with Disney to create paintings that summarized a number of their animated films — they are, indeed, charming and illustrative — but he was also alleged to have urinated on a statue at a Disney resort, crying, “This one’s for you, Walt!” He painted a lovely bird’s eye view of Las Vegas, then got drunk at a show there and heckled the performers: “Codpiece! Codpiece!”

All the while, his professional life centered on the depiction of hyper-idealistic, bucolic scenes rich in spiritual symbolism, as if to erase his childhood memories of an unstable household that suffered frequent threat of eviction. He spent great effort, as well, on charitable causes, pouring millions into them. Here is a man who depicted a world of calm perfection, a world of escape from the harsher realities of everyday life, and who reached out to help heal that world as best he could. Yet on the street he could be tempestuous, intolerant, and pushy.

I get the image of an overweight, angry alcoholic whose every effort, no matter how successful, could not push away the terrible truths of reality, truths that dashed all hope that the ideals expressed in his paintings could somehow radiate, like the light from their windows, out into our lives, changing things for the better. His landscapes depicted a kind of magic, but the magic wasn’t strong enough to transform the world. I imagine it finally got to him, and he simply died of apoplexy.

When next you happen upon a Kinkade painting, remember everything that went into it — the idealism, the frustration, the sales manipulation, the religious longing. Not simply kitsch, not simply a cog in a gigantic marketing machine, that painting contains a history of a man’s tumult and struggle and yearning. Its saccharine beauty so perfectly overstates its creator’s dream that it becomes impossible even to hope for it. And that is what I find intriguing in the cottages of Kinkade.

As for my appreciation of Hall & Oates and Twilight … well, maybe another time.

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UPDATE: Finally, a scholarly review of Kinkade’s work.

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