Thomas Kinkade's artistic legacy up for grabs

The death of popular artist Thomas Kinkade is certain to ignite controversy regarding the painter’s legacy. Known for his renderings of luminous landscapes and street scenes, often captured at twilight, the so-called painter of light, a Christian who said that God guided his brush, died Friday at 54 of natural causes.  

Regarded as both a master of kitsch and a genius of commercial marketing, Kinkade, a graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, discovered a lucrative formula for his art at an early age. He and his wife, Nanette, initially sold his painting for $35 apiece. Saturday morning on EBay, a 30-by-48-inch canvas of a stormy mountain range by Kinkade was listed at $95,000.

The marketplace will ultimately determine the value of his art, and in spite of his success –- or perhaps because of it –- he was the artist that most critics loved to hate.

In her 2003 memoir, “Where I Was From,” Joan Didion compared Kinkade with the 19th century landscape painter Albert Bierstadt whose dramatic images of the American West, with precipitous mountains and cascading rivers, are sometimes credited for driving the country’s Manifest Destiny.

Kinkade’s images are more modest in their ambitions but just as romantic, and Didion was no fan.

“A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels,” she wrote. “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.”

Essayist A.S. Hamrah likewise found little to admire in Kinkade’s popularity. In an essay in the literary magazine “The Baffler,” Hamrah equated Kinkade’s commercial appeal to the mortgage crisis of the last five years.

“The idea that these reproductions, gobbed with points of light, are a good investment isn’t any different than the idea that flipping gated, golf-coursed mansions is the way to get rich," Hamrah wrote. "Kinkade is a living testament to how the triumph of kitsch values has repercussions in the marketplace, outside the world of taste.”

-- Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times

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