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The Mystery of the Painter of Light™

Work by Thomas Kinkade (photo by Glen Dahlman/Flickr)
Work by Thomas Kinkade (photo by Glen Dahlman/Flickr)

Thomas Kinkade was a painter of cabins, lighthouses, and improvable sunsets. He was an avowed evangelical Christian who fortified his saccharine landscapes with passages from the scriptures. In terms of sales, he was literally the most successful living artist in the world. Yet he died in tabloid-ready disgrace, his personal life and his business in utter disarray.

I had hoped that Weinstein BooksBillion Dollar Painter: The Triumph and Tragedy of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light, written by G. Eric Kuskey, the former head of licensing for Kinkade’s company, and Bettina Gilois, a professional author, would shed some light on the artist behind the phenomenon. Was he a sincere outsider or a canny huckster? Kuskey and Gilois do a fine job describing the rise and fall of the Kinkade media empire, but the man behind it never comes into clear focus, his achievements lost behind the enterprise and his humanity mired in his media-ready public persona.

billion-dollar-painter

I had never heard of Thomas Kinkade until Susan Orlean profiled him in The New Yorker in 2001. I was working at a contemporary art gallery at the time, and though 10 million people had purchased a Kinkade-licensed product, none of my coworkers knew who he was either.

Kinkade’s name started to appear on the art world’s radar in the following years. In 2004, conceptual artist Jeffrey Vallance curated a retrospective, Thomas Kinkade: Heaven on Earth, at the CSUF Grand Central Art Center. Vallance insisted this was not an exercise in irony but a legitimate look at the questions that Kinkade’s popularity and religious content raised about the contemporary art scene. That year, Kinkade’s company reached $2 billion in total retail sales.

But at the same time the business was fighting lawsuits by unhappy Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchise owners who claimed unethical business practices. The artist’s personal misconduct became public during the legal proceedings: Kinkade was accused of groping a woman at a sales event and of urinating on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim while saying, “This one’s for you, Walt.” In 2010 the company filed for bankruptcy, and less than two weeks later Kinkade was arrested for driving while intoxicated, resulting in ten days in jail. Two years later, at the age of 54, he would be dead of acute alcohol and Valium poisoning. Kinkade’s estranged wife would have to sue his new companion to get her to leave the family house. By then Kinkade’s company had pulled out of bankruptcy and broken the $4 billion revenue mark.

According to Billion Dollar Painter, Thomas Kinkade was barely eking out a living selling his artwork at art fairs (these are the events you might hear advertised on the radio as “starving artist sales” held in convention centers, not fairs like Art Basel or Frieze). He was then discovered painting in the street by Rick Barnett, “one of the best vacuum cleaner salesmen in the Kirby Vacuum Company,” who offered to become his representative on the spot, despite never having sold any art before. Barnett was extremely successful in selling Kinkade’s paintings to galleries, which inspired the artist to try his hand at lithographs to meet the increasing demand.

Enter Ken Raasch, a low-level executive at a small finance firm. Raasch invested $30,000 to start a company to create and sell reproductions of Kinkade’s works. Raassch quickly connected with the Bradford Exchange, a collectibles licensing company known for plates and mugs and music boxes, and the money started rolling in. Kinkade then discovered a process by which his lithographs could be transferred to canvas, and the company started producing “limited edition” copies nearly indistinguishable from the originals. Kinkade never produced more than about a dozen new paintings a year, but the company began selling reproductions at several different levels: plain prints, canvas transfers, transfers “accented with paint” by trained specialists, and the top — touched up by Kinkade himself. The company went public in 1994; by 1996, they were printing editions of each painting as large as 100,000.

The book portrays most of the principals at the Kinkade company as completely inexperienced in the collectibles business — at one point Kinkade’s pastor was made vice chairman of the board — but the company continued to grow nonetheless. They made licensing deals with a furniture manufacturer to create a Kinkade line, sold his prints on QVC, and eventually even licensed a housing development: The Village at Hiddenbrooke, a Painter of Light™ Community.

(photo by Qfamily/Flickr)
(photo by Qfamily/Flickr)

The problems started with the creation of the Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries. Franchisees were required to design and decorate their galleries according to stringent rules, and to buy their furnishings and stock exclusively from the Kinkade company. They were obligated to sell at prices set by the company, and if the franchise couldn’t live up to the stipulations, they were supposed to destroy their inventory. Meanwhile, the company began to undersell the galleries by dumping unsold merchandise with overstock liquidators and by offering cheaper, nearly indistinguishable editions on QVC. They sold licenses for new franchises in areas that were already underperforming, and franchise owners began going bankrupt. The lawsuits piled up, and Kinkade’s God-driven mission was tarnished beyond repair.

Where was Thomas Kinkade in all this? While Kuskey and Gilois succeed in illuminating the corporate machinations that made the Kinkade phenomenon, the man himself remains murky. Kuskey takes great pains to avoid speaking badly of Kinkade. The artist does not seem to have been very involved in the running of the company. When he appears in the narrative, he’s usually in the studio, working on another masterpiece.

Billion Dollar Painter depicts Kinkade as a slightly naïve romantic, from “[living] the artist’s life, sporting a beret everywhere he went” in his school years to his later habit of predicting that he would die prematurely, comparing himself to van Gogh or Toulouse-Lautrec. Kinkade is portrayed as a charismatic dreamer whose ambition is not the want of money, but rather the desire to reach as many people as possible. Kuskey writes:

It was Thom’s favorite subject: world domination. The excitement of planning, of dreaming, of bringing vision to life. And it wasn’t because of the money. It was because he believed God had a special purpose for him, and that was to influence people through his paintings. He thought that with his paintings, he would change the world.

Unfortunately, Kuskey doesn’t question what it means when Kinkade later places so much value on the furniture line and the housing development — neither of which the artist designed, and neither of which seem to have much to do with a godly message.

Thomas Kinkade mugs (photo by Zack Weinberg/Flickr)
Thomas Kinkade mugs (photo by Zack Weinberg/Flickr)

Kuskey struggles to integrate Kinkade’s public persona with the real man, relegating his ego and his misbehavior to Kinkade’s “appetite.” He writes, “He had an appetite for life, for food, for drink, for beautiful things and beautiful women,” but appetite seems like a weak word to describe the sordid incident in which a young female companion had to call for help from a hotel after Kinkade drank so much that he was paralyzed for ten days from alcohol poisoning.

It’s easy for us to dismiss Kinkade as a clueless purveyor of kitsch, but he was not unaware of his place in the official art world. He often contrasted himself with modern artists, whom he felt were misguided in their drive for self-expression, comparing himself instead to popular illustrators like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell. Kuskey quotes him as saying something that could have come easily have come from Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, or Damien Hirst: “Andy Warhol is my hero, and I’m his heir apparent.” Here’s hoping a future biography examines that claim more closely.

Eric Kuskey and Bettina Gilois’s Billion Dollar Painter: The Triumph and Tragedy of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light is published by Weinstein Books and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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