Artist Thomas Kinkade once said that he had something in common with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell: He wanted to make people happy.
And he won success with brushwork paintings that focused on idyllic landscapes, cottages and churches – highly popular works that became big sellers for dealers across the United States.
The self-described “Painter of Light,” who died Friday at age 54, produced sentimental scenes of country gardens and pastoral landscapes in dewy morning light that were beloved by many but criticized by the art establishment.
Kinkade died at his home in Los Gatos in the San Francisco Bay Area of what appeared to be natural causes, said family spokesman David Satterfield.
He claimed to be the nation’s most collected living artist, and his paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be in 10 million homes in the United States.
Those light-infused renderings are often prominently displayed in buildings, malls, and on products – generally depicting tranquil scenes with lush landscaping and streams running nearby. Many contain images from Bible passages.
“I’m a warrior for light,” Kinkade, a self-described devout Christian, told the San Jose Mercury News in 2002, a reference to the medieval practice of using light to symbolize the divine. “With whatever talent and resources I have, I’m trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel.”
Before Kinkade’s Media Arts Group went private in the middle of the past decade, the company took in $32 million per quarter from 4,500 dealers across the country, according to the Mercury News. The cost of his paintings range from hundreds of dollars to more than $10,000.
According to his website, Kinkade’s paintings have been reproduced in hand-signed lithographs, canvas prints, books, posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines. The website touts his Disney collection and offers a gallery locator, where fans can find nearby dealers.
His artistic philosophy was not to express himself through his paintings like many artists, but rather to give the masses what they wanted: warm, positive images, Ken Raasch, who co-founded Kinkade’s company with him, told the Mercury News.
“I’d see a tree as being green, and he would see it as 47 different shades of green,” Raasch said. “He just saw the world in a much more detailed way than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Bridges are a frequent subject, as are steps or grassy inclines leading through gate images. Some of his paintings are visual depictions of Bible verses, such as “A Light in the Storm,” taken from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.”
A biography on the website said Kinkade rejected “the intellectual isolation of the artist” and instead, made “each of his works an intimate statement that resonates in the personal lives of his viewers.”
“I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy,” he said.
He called Rockwell his earliest hero. “I remember my mom had a big collection of copies of (Saturday Evening Post) magazines, and that was really my introduction to those great illustrators,” he said.
Kinkade was born and raised in the Placerville, Calif. He studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
He said art was a major outlet growing up.
“I was always the kid who could draw,” he said. “I had this talent, and it was the one thing that gave me some kind of dignity in the midst of my personal environment.”
As a young man, Kinkade traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist, James Gurney, sketching the American landscape along the way.
The site says that with these sketches in hand, the two were able to get published “The Artist Guide to Sketching” in 1982, a book that helped land him a job creating background art for animated films.
Also that year, he married his childhood sweetheart, Nanette, to whom he frequently paid tribute to by hiding her name and those of his four daughters within his paintings.
“Thom provided a wonderful life for his family,” Nanette said in a statement. “We are shocked and saddened by his death.”
There was no immediate word on an official cause of death. Calls to the coroner’s office were not immediately returned.
The newspaper said friends and family on Friday began planning a private service and were weighing a public celebration for a later date.
By JOHN S. MARSHALL