The painter Thomas Kinkade died last week at age 54. His brother Patrick said that separation from his wife and four daughters had taken a toll on Kinkade, and that criticism of his Painter of Light paintings had also beaten him down, leading to the artist’s alcoholism.
I think Patrick should have added that the possibility exists Thomas Kinkade was also brooding over selling out or betraying his talent.
Kinkade was a naturally fine painter, early in his career a plein air artist. He more or less deserted that side of his art for the often saccharin work he became known for.
We see this frequently in artists and it’s a danger for writers, too: tailoring the work for commercial success at the cost of artistic integrity. Sometimes the artist is successful and makes sales, but in the long run the work and the artist will probably be forgotten.
Because he was a `phenomenon’ – his commercial success soaring then plummeting – Kinkade will not be forgotten. He’ll likely become an example of a talented man making wrong choices.
One of Kinkade’s earliest inspirations was the artist and educator Glenn Wessels, who retired to Kinkade’s hometown of Placerville, California after a distinguished if not lucrative career – a not uncommon result for a dedicated artist.
Wessels’ family came to California after surviving the Boer War. Glenn studied art in America and Europe, taught for many years, was involved in the Federal Art Project in the 1930s, had numerous museum exhibitions with his work now in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Oakland Museum of California, was known as an abstract expressionist, and became a California State Commissioner of Fine Art.
He is, nonetheless, not known by many, but seemed happy with what he had accomplished by several accounts and, unlike Kinkade, lived a long life of 87 years.
In Placerville, Wessels immediately recognized the young Kinkade’s talent, gave him lessons and urged him to study art at the University of California at Berkeley. Graciously Kinkade always gave Wessels credit for encouraging and helping him.
Wessels died in 1982 so didn’t witness the Painter of Light phenomenon. Who knows what he would have thought. Certainly he would have marveled at the marketing prowess of the people who pushed Kinkade’s work.
If you search auction records over the last decade, there are under a dozen pieces by Wessels that have come to the block, and the highest price is $2,210. That’s not much for an historically significant artist with major profiles in Who Was Who in American Art and Artists in California – 1786-1940.
Twenty-one pieces by Kinkade have been auctioned over the same time period, with a high price of $34,000, and many more selling for five figures.
Ironically, all but a few of these paintings are plein air landscapes or rugged scenes of Native American encampments, a theme that seemed to fascinate Kinkade. They are skillfully wrought, only minimally sentimentalized if at all.
There is only one painting among the 21 that the casual viewer might recognize as a Kinkade Painter of Light type work.
That piece went unsold at auction.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...