Thomas Kinkade, the self-styled “Painter of Light” who sold his idyllic depictions of secluded homes and churches and majestic views of the natural world through a vast distribution network, becoming one of the most commercially successful artists of his time, died at his home on Friday in Los Gatos, Calif., the Associated Press reports. He was 54. A family spokesperson said that he died of natural causes. An official cause of death will not be released for a few days.
The Media Arts Group, which sold his work, estimated that his art hangs in 10 million American homes, roughly one out of every 20 residences in the country. At the height of his fame, in 2005, it was reported that his large selection of art products—paintings priced at more than $10,000, but also cheaper prints, posters, editioned sculptures, La-Z-Boy chairs, air fresheners and other merchandise—brought in more than $100 million in revenue each year through a network of 4,500 dealers.
As the New York Post put it, his “sentimental paintings were beloved by middlebrow America but reviled by the art establishment.” At best, that establishment ignored his work. Few major art museums hold his work. But Kinkade was not interested in the imprimatur of experts. He wanted to delight people and provide solace with his scenes, which often included Biblical passages and references to his fervent Christianity. He was, he once said, “a warrior of light.” Another time he declared, “God is my art agent.” The middle name of each of his four daughters is “Christian.”
Joan Didion found his imagery somewhat creepy, arguing that the homes he portrayed had such “insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel.”
Kinkade was raised in Placerville, Calif., and attended at the University of California at Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. He said that he once traveled by boxcar from California to New York, sketching all the way, according to the AP. After selling 1,000 copies of a limited-edition book of his drawings back in 1984, he moved aggressively to market his work, in a multi-tiered system of products similar in strategy to those of contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami.
His career was not without his stumbles, especially in recent years. In 2006 it was reported that he had urinated on a sculpture of Winnie the Pooh at a Disneyland Hotel, declaring, “This one’s for you, Walt.” That same year, an arbitration panel ordered his business to pay more than $800,000 for defrauding two galleries that sold his work. After further legal battles, he was eventually ordered to pay $2.8 million to settle the claim. In 2009, the FBI was reportedly investigating his business for defrauding investors, and in 2010 he was arrested on drunk-driving charges and later pleaded no contest.
Though Kinkade’s reputation is dismal within the professional art world, his long-term legacy is uncertain. “He doesn’t look like an artist who’s worth considering, except in terms of supply and demand,” art historian Robert Rosenblum told The New York Times in 1999, as quoted in Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, a book of scholarly writing that attempted to evaluate his work from a visual-studies perspective. But, Mr. Rosenblum noted, “[A] lot of people would have probably said the same things about Rockwell 20 or 30 years ago.”