“How did Christian art go from Rembrandt to Kinkade?” I asked, knowing full well any criticism of Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed (and trademarked) Painter of Light™, would lead to howls of protest. Kinkade is, as his website proclaims, “America’s most collected living artist.” He has sold over ten million works and his art or licensed product, which includes wallpaper, tableware, stationary, and La-Z-Boy chairs and sofas, is estimated to be in one in ten homes in the U.S. He has even “inspired” a novel (Cape Light), a TV-movie (“Home for Christmas”) and planned communities (“The Gates of Coeur d’Alene” in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, “The Village at Hiddenbrooke,” outside of San Francisco, et al.). His admirers are legion, especially among evangelical Christians.
“Suppose you had never heard of Kincaid and you saw one of his paintings in a respectable art gallery,” responded my friend Steve. “Suppose you found out that Kincaid cut off his ear and died a long time ago without any money. Can you say with certainty that your opinion of his aesthetics would be the same?”
The interesting assumption behind my friends question is that the reason that Kinkade’s paintings are critically reviled is because the painter is rich, popular, and out of favor with the New York art world cognoscenti.
No doubt many people who would praise a rich, popular, establishment-approved hack like Andy Warhol despise Kinkade for being a rich, popular, evangelical-approved hack. But I think a solid case against Kinkade can be made on purely aesthetic criteria, especially when you compare his work to a superior artist.
Consider two works of on similar themes. Both are images of the Water Tower in Chicago. Both have similar elements—a carriage, trees, people with umbrellas. Indeed, paintings are almost identical in theme and content, if not in style.
And yet the first is unquestionably technically superior. The use of texture and shadow puts the viewer within the picture. You can almost feel the cold Chicago air and hear the sounds of the serene yet bustling city.
The second painting, however, distances the viewer from the scene. Light is overused (notice the light coming from every window and the background lights that resemble a brushfire), presenting a faux golden glow that is unrealistic and dull. And the carriage, though more sharply drawn than in the first painting, is two-dimensional and distracting. While the first work is worthy of gracing a museum wall, the second is only worthy of garnishing a cheap greeting card.
As you could probably guess, the second painting is by Thomas Kinkade, circa 2004.
But what about the first painting, the more aesthetically superior rendition of the Water Tower? It too is by Thomas Kinkade; he painted it in 1998.
This is what is so distressing about Thomas Kinkade: He is both a creator of some of the most inspiring paintings of the past two decades and a producer of some of the worst schlock ever manufactured by a talented artist.
Both the harshest critics and the keenest admirers of Kinkade’s work, however, tend to be unfamiliar with his more meritable paintings. But it is his oft-overlooked cityscapes and early mountain scenes that truly reveal his keen eye, technical brilliance, and aesthetic sensitivity. Take, for example, his use of various shades of red in “San Francisco, 1909.”
Or his subtle use of white light, reminiscent of the Hudson River School, in his depiction of the Yukon town of “Dawson.”
Kinkade is at his best when he captures the human side of cities, such as in “New York, Central Park at Sixth Avenue.”
But just as a baker can ruin a supurb dessert by adding too much sugar, Kinkade can lose the sense of a place by attempting to romanticize a scene. His “San Francisco, Late Afternoon at Union Square” perfectly captures the mood of a city street after a rain.
Yet three years later, painting the almost exact same scene, he clogs it with color until it loses the magic of his previous work.
The first street scene was painted to capture a very specific place, San Francisco; the second scene was painted to capture a very different place, the consumer’s living room wall.
But Kinkade is best known for his cottage and nature scenes, so it is there that the bulk of critical attention must be placed.
It was nine paintings into his oeuvre that he attempted his first cottage scene. “The Blue Cottage” differs from much of the later variations on the theme because of its simplicity in its use of light and color.
But it also contains something missing from almost all of his later cottage paintings: people.
Kinkade justifies the absence of people in his picturesque scenarios because he doesn’t want to exclude any viewers from being able to step into the fantasy. “When you paint people, you limit people,” Kinkade once explained, offering the example of a hypothetical Vietnamese-American family. “Why would they want to look at a picture of a dozen white people sitting around a Thanksgiving table?”
What the artist fails to understand is that Vietnamese-Americans (as well as African-, Mexican-, Chinese-, and other hyphenated Americans) probably do not share the Anglo-American cottage fantasy. And his cottage scenes are precisely that—Anglo fantasies. Adults hang paintings of Kinkade’s paintings of cottages in their living room for the same reason that little girls put posters of unicorns and rainbows on their bedroom walls. It is a pseudo-referential nostalgia, a longing for what does not exist in reality but exists in the fantasy realm of possibility.
No other painting epitomizes this nostalgia for a place that never existed better than Cottage by the Sea.
As Kinkade explains, “Though this cottage doesn’t exist anywhere but in my painting, I think for many of us it represents an ideal seaside getaway. Of course, I had to paint the scene at sunset. After all, what would a seaside cottage be without a beautiful sunset to watch?”
What is so dispiriting about this painting is that rather than being created in order to be challenging or even inspiring, it’s intended only to be comforting. It invites the viewer to enter a world of unnatural nature, a world where the “light” comes from within, and the warmth comes not from the receding sun but from inside the walls of the perfect Anglo shelter.
The cottage is a self-contained safe place where the viewer can shut himself in and get away from the harsh realities of creation, particularly away from other people. The Cottage by the Sea offers a place where the viewer can enter the perfect world of Kinkade’s creation—and escape the messy world of Kinkade’s Creator.