SAN JOSE — In a painter's life, it is generally the case that success is the worst thing of all.
--Vincent van Gogh, who never realized commercial success in his life yet agonized over its possibilities, wrote those words in a letter to his mother in 1890.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 9, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo captions--A photo caption in a July 26 story ("Rich Man, Poor Man") misidentified a painting by Thomas Kinkade. The painting of an idyllic rural setting is titled "A New Day Dawning."
It's a good thing van Gogh isn't around to see Thomas Kinkade's success; it would render him speechless.
Kinkade, 42, who has been dubbed "the painter of light," is everywhere. Although you can no longer buy his originals (he doesn't need the cash, so he keeps them in a vault), you can purchase a canvas-backed lithograph (for anywhere from $900 to $15,000), a plate, a snow globe or a blanket to cuddle under while you lounge in a Thomas Kinkade La-Z-Boy chair. You can write letters on a Thomas Kinkade note pad and drink coffee from a cup decorated with one of his paintings.
And you won't have to look very far to find these items.
In California, there are 78 "signature galleries"--galleries carrying only Kinkade's work. You can also check the New York Stock Exchange to see how Media Arts Group Inc., the San Jose-based company devoted solely to Kinkade's works, is doing. Soon, you might be able to live in a Thomas Kinkade home or even a village: Media Arts is in discussion with U.S. Home Corp. in Houston to build houses modeled after those in his paintings.
These paintings feature quaint villages, thatched-roof cottages, lamplight glowing from windows, gardens where everything is in bloom, city scenes that have a 19th century feel to them; friendly neighbors are waving to each other, and there isn't a homeless person or a boarded-up building in sight. They have titles such as "Simpler Times," "Beyond Spring Gate," "Beside Still Waters."
"I believe in a simple way of life," Kinkade says from his home, a short drive away from the San Jose factory that employs 450 people who mass-produce his lithographs. "I am a symbol of a good life that people dream of and maybe haven't been able to achieve. I'm not perfect, but I have a happy family, a happy life. My paintings are illustrations of that."
Kinkade's fans are legion and have made him a wealthy man: In fiscal 1999, Media Arts posted revenues of $126 million. Kinkade and his wife, Nanette, own 27% of the stock, making them worth an estimated $30 million. The results of Kinkade's appearances on QVC cable network, to sell his prints or his book, "Lightposts for Living," are watched carefully by Media Arts Group, which calculated that in one 1999 QVC show, 10,000 copies of the book were sold every minute. He says he has had to curtail personal appearances at galleries and bookstores; so many fans were arriving days early, camping out in RVs that neighborhoods were inconvenienced.
Everything in the Kinkade empire is meticulously cataloged, including what Kinkade calls "the tear file" of letters. In one, a woman who had adopted several children with special needs, wrote that one of them, an autistic boy, spoke for the first time when looking at a Kinkade seascape. (He pointed and said, "Boat.") Others claim that gazing at his prints have helped them through chemotherapy or grief.
But the enduring question, amid the adulation, loyalty and entrepreneurial talent, is: Is this art?
There has long been a friction between art and commerce. Even van Gogh saw the danger in commercial success. Norman Rockwell, for most of his life, was called an illustrator, but not an artist. The late sculptor Frederick Hart, who created "Ex Nihilo," the west facade of the Washington National Cathedral, made a lot of money but garnered no critical recognition for his work. Margaret and Walter Keane's paintings--the children with the huge, bulging eyes--were bought by adoring fans to the disgust of serious art critics.
No one, though, has taken marketing and merchandising to the lengths that Thomas Kinkade has. That, and the fact that representational art has not been well received critically for the last couple of decades, has created resentment.
Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, called Kinkade's work "naive postmodernism." Jack Rutberg, a Los Angeles art dealer, dismissed it as "the pet rock of the art world." Michael Zakian, director of the Frederick Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University, says Kinkade "takes motifs and reduces them to one-dimensional cliches. The colors are actually grating." Kinkade's own description of his work as "comfort art" defies Zakian's opinion that serious art must engage or challenge us.