William Thomas Kinkade III (January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012), was an American painter of popular realistic, pastoral, and idyllic subjects. He is notable for the mass marketing of his work as printed reproductions and other licensed products via the Thomas Kinkade Company. He characterized himself as “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light,” a phrase he protected through trademark but one originally attributed to the British master J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). It has been estimated that 1 in every 20 American homes owns a copy of one of his paintings.
Despite wide commercial success throughout his life, Kinkade is generally held in low esteem by art critics; his pastoral paintings have been described as maudlin and overly sentimental.
William Thomas Kinkade was born on January 19, 1958, in Sacramento County, California. He grew up in the town of Placerville, graduated from El Dorado High School in 1976, and attended the University of California, Berkeley, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He married Nanette Wiley in 1982, and the couple had four daughters: Merritt (b. 1988), Chandler (b. 1991), Winsor (b. 1995) and Everett (b. 1997), all named for famous artists. He and his wife had been separated for over a year before his death in 2012.
Some of the people who mentored and taught Kinkade prior to college were Charles Bell and Glenn Wessels. Wessels encouraged Kinkade to go to the University of California at Berkeley. Kinkade’s relationship with Wessels is the subject of a semi-autobiographical film released in 2008, Christmas Cottage. After two years of general education at Berkeley, Kinkade transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
In June 1980, Kinkade spent a summer traveling across the United States with his college friend James Gurney. The two of them finished their journey in New York and secured a contract with Guptill Publications to produce a sketching handbook. Two years later they produced The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, which was one of Guptill Publications’ best-sellers that year. The success of the book led them both to Ralph Bakshi Studios where they created background art for the 1983 animated feature film Fire and Ice. While working on the film, Kinkade began to explore the depiction of light and of imagined worlds. After the film, Kinkade earned his living as a painter, selling his originals in galleries throughout California.
Recurring features of Kinkade’s paintings are their glowing highlights and saturated pastel colors. Rendered in highly idealistic values of American scene painting, his works often portray bucolic and idyllic settings such as gardens, streams, stone cottages, lighthouses and Main Streets. His hometown of Placerville (where his works are omnipresent) was the inspiration for many of his street and snow scenes. He also depicted various Christian themes including the Christian cross and churches.
Kinkade said he was placing emphasis on the value of simple pleasures and that his intent was to communicate inspirational, life-affirming messages through his paintings. A self-described “devout Christian” (even giving all four of his children the middle name “Christian”), Kinkade believed he gained his inspiration from his religious beliefs and that his work was intended to contain a larger moral dimension. He also said that his goal as an artist was to touch people of all faiths and to bring a sense of peace into their lives through the images he created.] Many pictures contain specific chapter-and-verse allusions to Bible passages.
Kinkade said, “I am often asked why there are no people in my paintings,” but in 2009 he painted a portrait of the Indianapolis Speedway for the cover of that year’s Indianapolis 500 race program that included details of the diversity of the crowd, hiding among them the figures of Norman Rockwell and Dale Earnhardt. He also painted the farewell portrait for Yankee Stadium. About the Indianapolis Speedway painting, Kinkade said:
The passion I have is to capture memories, to evoke the emotional connection we have to an experience. I came out here and stood up on the bleachers and looked around, and I saw all the elements of the track. It was empty at the time. But I saw the stadium, how the track laid out, the horizon, the skyline of Indianapolis and the Pagoda. I saw it all in my imagination. I began thinking, ‘I want to get this energy — what I call the excitement of the moment — into this painting.’ As I began working on it, I thought, ‘Well you have this big piece of asphalt, the huge spectator stands; I’ve got to do something to get some movement.’ So I just started throwing flags into it. It gives it kind of a patriotic excitement.
Artist and Guggenheim Fellow Jeffrey Vallance has spoken about Kinkade’s devout religious themes and their reception in the art world:
This is another area that the contemporary art world has a hard time with, that I find interesting. He expresses what he believes and puts that in his art. That is not the trend in the high-art world at the moment, the idea that you can express things spiritually and be taken seriously … It is always difficult to present serious religious ideas in an art context. That is why I like Kinkade. It is a difficult thing to do.
Essayist Joan Didion is a representative critic of Kinkade’s style:
A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.
Didion went on to compare the “Kinkade Glow” to the luminism of 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt, who sentimentalized the infamous Donner Pass in his Donner Lake from the Summit. Didion saw “unsettling similarities” between the two painters, and worried that Kinkade’s treatment of the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains Declare His Glory, similarly ignored the tragedy of the forced dispersal of Yosemite’s Sierra Miwok Indians during the Gold Rush, by including an imaginary Miwok camp as what he calls “an affirmation that man has his place, even in a setting touched by God’s glory.”
Mike McGee, director of the CSUF Grand Central Art Center at California State University, Fullerton, wrote of the Thomas Kinkade Heaven on Earth exhibition:
Looking just at the paintings themselves it is obvious that they are technically competent. Kinkade’s genius, however, is in his capacity to identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience—he cites his mother as a key influence and archetypal audience — and to couple this with savvy marketing … If Kinkade’s art is principally about ideas, and I think it is, it could be suggested that he is a Conceptual artist. All he would have to do to solidify this position would be to make an announcement that the beliefs he has expounded are just Duchampian posturing to achieve his successes. But this will never happen. Kinkade earnestly believes in his faith in God and his personal agenda as an artist.
Kinkade received many awards for his works, including multiple National Association of Limited Edition Dealers (NALED) awards for Artist of the Year and Graphic Artist of the Year, and his art was named Lithograph of the Year nine times.
In 2002, Kinkade was inducted into the California Tourism Hall of Fame as an individual who had influenced the public’s perception of tourism in California through his images of California sights. He was selected along with fellow artists Simon Bull and Howard Behrens to commemorate the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the 2002 World Series. He was also honored with the 2002 World Children’s Center Humanitarian Award for his contributions to improving the welfare of children and their families through his work with Kolorful Kids and Art for Children.
In 2003, Kinkade was chosen as a national spokesperson for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 2004, he was selected for a second time by the Christmas Pageant of Peace to paint the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. The painting, Symbols of Freedom, was the official image for the 2004 Pageant of Peace.
In 2004, Kinkade received an award from NALED recognizing him as the Most Award Winning Artist in the Past 25 Years. of the Year. He was also recognized for his philanthropic efforts by NALED with the Eugene Freedman Humanitarian Award.