Thomas Kinkade Dies: Scholars Look at His Impact - Miller-McCune
Thomas Kinkade, the best-selling “Painter of Light,” died Friday at his Los Gatos, California home at age 54. This profile of the first academic treatment of his work was written for the premiere issue of Pacific Standard magazine, which is currently in the mail to subscribers.
Alexis Boylan felt a jolt as she leafed through the October 15, 2001, issue of The New Yorker. An art historian just completing her doctorate in contemporary American art, Boylan was pleased to see a profile of a painter and printmaker, but in her years of scholarship, she had never come across the saturated pastel colors of Thomas Kinkade.
Then she started seeing his imagery everywhere: prints of stone cottages nestled in verdant gardens, calendars showing small-town main streets, coffee cups featuring sunsets over lighthouses perched on rocky cliffs.
“An often-cited figure is that one in 20 American homes has a Kinkade image in it,” she says. “Even if that number is more like one in 40, or one in 80, it is hard to think of another artist that has that kind of saturation. I felt this huge disconnect between what I was doing academically and what was going on around me.”
After doing some digging, she realized why Kinkade failed to merit even a footnote in her reading: scholars and critics dismissed him as a schlocky artist unworthy of study. Kinkade’s widespread appeal — the artist boasted to The New Yorker that 10 million people had purchased one of his products — was considered irrelevant.
Boylan, who teaches in the University of Connecticut’s art history department and women’s studies program, disagrees. “We are accosted by thousands of images every day,” she notes. “Given this cacophony, what images are so intense that they inspire a spiritual or emotional epiphany? That’s how a lot of fans talk about Kinkade’s work. He is incredibly astute at pulling together a lot of visual cues that have, historically, soothed people.”
A decade after first brushing into Kinkade’s work, Boylan is the editor of Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall (Duke University Press), the first-ever anthology of scholarly essays on the “painter of light.” To her and like-minded colleagues, when an artist like Kinkade inspires such a passionate response — be it devotion or disdain — surely that is worthy of examination.
“As a young scholar, I didn’t want to become ghettoized as someone who works on kitsch,” says Andrea Wolk Rager, a visiting assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University who contributed an essay to Boylan’s collection. “But I also didn’t want to insult people who find this work very compelling. I wanted to explore how his aesthetics function.
“So I sat and carefully looked at his work, which a lot of people don’t do. I found a lot of interesting things recurring in his different images.” These include a racial homogeneity she found unsettling (literally all of the figures in his images are white), and a recurring motif of isolated pairs of people walking together-often a mother and child.
Rager defines Kinkade’s appeal as “the aesthetics of nostalgia.” She notes that sociologists consider nostalgic longing a response to feeling uprooted or unmoored, while some psychologists link it to an unconscious desire to return to the womb. She contends that Kinkade’s images, with their soft light, rain-slicked streets, and general aura of gentle reassurance, speak to both of those primal pulls.
“We never see people or things inside Kinkade’s homes — just the light coming from the windows,” notes Boylan. In many cases, smoke wafts from a chimney, indicating warmth. “People talk about imagining who lives in the home, or imagining themselves in the home.”