The painter of light has entered a dark period. Thomas Kinkade, the self-proclaimed (and trademarked) Painter of Light™, is beset with legal troubles. Several years ago, art gallery owners successfully sued his Kinkade’s Media Arts Group for millions after it was revealed that he and company officials invoked God and their “higher calling” to hide the financial risks of the investments.
The settlement put such a strain on his company that earlier this month, he filed for bankruptcy protection from his hundreds of other creditors. Adding to his woes, the artist was arrested on a DUI charge outside his home in Carmel, California.
What sets this news apart from similarly tragic human interest stories is that Kinkade is one of the most financially successful artists in the world. As his website proclaims, Kinkade is “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 United States. 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, and “The Village at Hiddenbrooke” outside of San Francisco, and others).
His admirers are legion, especially among evangelical Christians. As an evangelical, I was aware that he was popular but had no idea how much religious devotion he inspired until I expressed my disapproval of the artist’s oeuvre.
“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 friend’s 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. (And has both ears.)
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, the 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 feel the chill of the cold Chicago wind and hear the sounds of the serene yet bustling city.
In contrast, the second painting distances the viewer from the scene. Artificial light oozes out from every window and the background lights 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; it could have been added in using Photoshop rather than daubs of paint. While the first work is worthy of gracing a museum wall, the second is only worthy of garnishing a 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 makes Thomas Kinkade exasperating: 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 superb dessert by adding too much sugar, Kinkade loses 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 every pore with color until it loses the magic that exudes from 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 career 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: 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?” (Well, it might be dawn on the east coast, or a beautiful spring noon, or a crisp fall late afternoon.)
There is nothing wrong, or course, with fantasy or with what C.S. Lewis called Sehnsucht, the inconsolable longing in the human heart for “we know not what.” What makes Kinkade’s cottage painting so dispiriting is that rather than being created to challenge or even inspire, to evoke in some way the desire for Heaven, it’s intended only to comfort. It’s sentimental.
Sentimentality, as literary critic Alan Jacobs says in a recent interview with Mars Hill Journal, encourages us to “suspend judgment and reflection in order to indulge deliberately in emotion for its own sake.” Reflection reinforces and strengthens true emotions while exposing those feelings that are shallow and disingenuous. Sentimentalists, however, try to avoid this experience of reality and try to keep people from asking questions by giving them pleasing emotions they have not earned. The shameless manipulation of our emotions, says Jacobs, is the ultimate act of cynicism.
Kinkade’s cottage fantasies offer this sort of emotional manipulation. The cottages are self-contained emotional safehouses in which the viewer can shut himself off from true emotions earned through a real encounter with reality, from the rough and sometimes harsh realities of creation, and—most importantly—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.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.