I was surprised to read that Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light,” had died at age 54. It seems only yesterday I was in the Thomas Kinkade Gallery at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas, ambling through fantastically homey landscapes in pink and blue pastels. Quaint brick houses with sloping straw rooftops and fresh green lawns dotted with lazy horses under a perfect blue sky. A yellow brick road dappled with autumn sun. A lighthouse standing sentry beneath a splash of coastline. A stone house frosted in snow by a lightly frozen river, and standing by the river, in a ring of luminescence, a pair of deer. All the windows in all the houses in all the landscapes have the glow of a magical hearth, as if lit by heaven itself. Everything in Las Vegas glows, but not like Kinkade’s paintings. The light in Las Vegas is temporary and utilitarian in its showiness. There is nothing in its glow that feels so everlasting as the light of Kinkade, save the sunset over the valley.
Recent obituaries reported that one in 20 American homes displays a work of Thomas Kinkade. I read that Thomas Kinkade was (and still is) the most successful artist in all America. This news is at first surprising, and then not surprising at all. What American artist would be his rival? There are hundreds of Thomas Kinkade shops selling paintings of light across the country (not to mention in the U.K., Canada, Malaysia, Ireland, Russia…). It is likely that Thomas Kinkade is not only the most popular painter in America but the only American painter most Americans can name. Certainly, no other American painter has hundreds of shops of their paintings — most don’t even have one. Many have argued that there are American artists much more deserving of shops than Kinkade, real artists who wouldn’t accept Kinkade’s level of popularity even if it were offered.
In the end, all the detractions are beside the point. America loves Thomas Kinkade — loves to love him or loves to hate him — and now that Kinkade is dead, they love-hate him all the more. The real reason for this is that Thomas Kinkade is the “Painter of Light.” Kinkade, who became a born-again Christian in the 1980s, wanted to lift people up with his art, to take them out of the darkness. He felt strongly that painting could achieve this and felt just as strongly that the contemporary fine art world had failed in the same project. “My mission as an artist,” Kinkade wrote on his website, “is to capture those special moments in life adorned with beauty and light. I work to create images that project a serene simplicity that can be appreciated and enjoyed by everyone. That’s what I mean by sharing the light.” Art, for Kinkade, was not meant to criticize society, and shouldn’t be reserved for an educated few. Painting was an “inspirational tool,” an alternative to the ugliness of the nightly news. “People who put my paintings on their walls,” he once told the New York Times, “are putting their values on their walls: faith, family, home, a simpler way of living, the beauty of nature, quiet, tranquility, peace, joy, hope.”
It’s no modest claim, calling yourself a painter of light. Painting light is not merely adding ambiance, and taking on the challenge of light is no anodyne endeavor. Of all the ways art attempts to grapple with light, painting it is among the most difficult. Other art forms like music and writing can get away with a mere description of light. But painters do not have this option. To allow light into a painting, one must capture it, this element that is so elusive, both ephemeral and earthly, both infinite and finite. Most painters throughout history have chosen to sidestep the problem of light, perhaps including an occasional representative of light instead — a halo, a sun god. And the there were those brave few — Rembrandt, the pre-Raphaelites — who took on the challenge of light almost as their primary task. There were the Impressionists, of course, for whom subject matter was a mere receptacle for the expression of light. And there is J.M.W. Turner, whose use of light so moved the critic John Ruskin that the latter was compelled to write a prose-poem in praise of it:
There is the motion, the actual wave and radiation of the darted beam: not the dull universal daylight, which falls on the landscape without life, or direction, or speculation, equal on all things and dead on all things; but the breathing, animated, exulting light, which feels, and receives, and rejoices, and acts …which seeks, and finds, and loses again… glowing, or flashing, or scintillating, according to what it strikes; or, in its holier moods, absorbing and enfolding all things in the deep fulness of its repose, and then again losing itself in bewilderment, and doubt, and dimness….
As Adam Kirsch once wrote, Turner and Ruskin were both Romantics, “striving after an infinity that art can barely contain.” Painting light is just this: the revelation of an unsolvable mystery, the attempt to frame a barely containable infinity. Bewilderment, doubt. Dimness.
Light has almost always — in Western painting, anyway — been used to convey a sense of transcendence, whether in religious iconography or a natural landscape. Come the 20th century, however, and light suddenly disappears behind a flat layer of two-dimensional shapes and splotches. Modernism was greatly concerned with universals, even with the sacred, but not specifically with how light expresses them. You could say that Modernism was a letting go of the light. Then, in the 1960s, light made a big comeback in art, in the form of light sculpture and light environments. Dan Flavin comes to mind. He created his sculptures with generic mass-produced light fixtures, like the kind you would find at the DMV. But rather than lifting you up, Flavin hoped that when you walked into one of his environments you would find the experience to be just as banal as the DMV. “My icons differ from a Byzantine Christ held in majesty,” Flavin once wrote in a record book, “they are dumb — anonymous and inglorious. They are as mute and indistinguished [sic] as the run of our architecture. My icons do not raise up the blessed savior in elaborate cathedrals. They are constructed concentrations celebrating barren rooms. They bring a limited light.” Just as natural light can be used to lift people up artificially, Flavin was saying, so can artificial light be used as the denial of transcendence.
Flavin’s iconoclastic approach to light is almost the mirror opposite of Thomas Kinkade. It is true that the mass accessibility of Kinkade’s paintings and their cozy, unpretentious themes made Thomas Kinkade a very rich man. But his accessibility cannot be disentangled from his painting philosophy. Accessibility and pretty colors were crucial in conveying Kinkade’s idea of a palpable, personal illumination. Kinkade’s paintings are, in this way, a bit like the Gideon’s Bible. Kinkade’s light is an everywhere, anytime transcendence.
As Kinkade himself said, light is optimism — and optimism is always a mix of hope and fantasy, of the natural and supernatural. A thatched-roof house in a grove that recalls a memory of a perfectly nameless country town is also reminiscent of a hobbit house from The Lord of the Rings. A young deer standing in a flowerbed by a stream looks to an impossible rainbow that juts from a cliff and the deer also happens to be Bambi. This kind of unapologetically sincere optimism is an easy target. There is something undeniably childish — even ludicrous — about hope. For this reason, just as the light in Kinkade’s paintings is a light of hope and joy, his paintings are melancholy, too. At the Fashion Show Mall last year, I was reminded of something Robert Walser once wrote about the easy delights of Berlin’s Tiergarten. It was like a painted picture, he wrote, “then like a dream, then like a circuitous, agreeable kiss. …[O]ne is lightly, comprehensibly enticed to gaze and linger.” “A Circuitous, Agreeable Kiss” might be the name for any one of Thomas Kinkade’s paintings, for this title conveys well the sense of longing and melancholy that stimulates both Kinkade’s fans and critics.
Thomas Kinkade has often been likened to Norman Rockwell — that other American populist who painted scenes of a happier America that existed in a bygone age. Like Rockwell, some have said, Kinkade attracted Americans not so much with hope but rather with nostalgia, the sweet sorrow of loss. Yet Kinkade’s paintings are not nostalgic; they are simply unreal. If anything, they depict an America that has never existed, and will never exist. It is the fantasy that makes them so attractive.
I have often wondered that there are rarely people in Thomas Kinkade’s paintings (his Disney paintings being an exception, though they are peopled by fictional characters). Kinkade said he kept his scenes empty so that people could project themselves into the paintings. To me, these empty landscapes of Kinkade feel more haunted than fantastic, as if the little house on the hill had to be suddenly and inexplicably vacated, its inhabitants not given even enough time to turn off the lights and stifle the fire in the hearth. • 12 April 2012