News of Thomas Kinkade’s death arrived on the same day I received in the mail a vintage teacup on which I had spent a ridiculous amount of money. It has a cottage painted on it. Kinkade, whose work has long exerted a morbid fascination for me (to the concern of all my friends), specialized in cottages. So some part of me understands the appeal, I guess, but, damn: Those paintings make my corneas hurt. And yet, I could barely stop looking at them.
Kinkade was only 54, and his family told the media that he died of “natural causes.” This comes after years of reports of drunken public misbehavior: cursing at people who tried to save him from falling off bar stools, heckling Siegfried & Roy, grabbing a woman’s breasts at a publicity event and, most memorably, urinating on a Winnie the Pooh statue at the Disneyland Hotel while proclaiming, “This one’s for you, Walt!” There were DUI arrests. Also, his manufacturing company declared bankruptcy two years ago, and former franchisees of the once-ubiquitous Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries won settlements against him for fraud.
That’s quite a fall for a man who frequently spoke of his Christian faith and family values when asked to comment on the mammoth success of his brand in the early 2000s. “When I got saved, God became my art agent,” Kinkade explained in a 2004 video. He went from a childhood in Placerville, Calif. (invariably characterized as “hard-scrabble”) to an apprenticeship selling his work in supermarket parking lots to his apotheosis as the nation’s “most profitable” artist, the Painter of Light™, and multimillionaire. He was profiled in the New Yorker by Susan Orlean.
I first learned about the dark side of the Painter of Light™ — sorry, couldn’t resist that one — when I reviewed “his” novel, “Cape Light,” in 2002. The novel, first in a series, was produced much as his paintings are: by a semi-industrial process in which low-level apprentices embellish a prefab base provided by Kinkade.
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