≡ Menu

Thomas Kinkade: What Did He Leave Us With?

Like all of us, Thomas Kinkade was a bad man. A sinful man. He wasn’t, however, a bad artist. But I’m no connoisseur. My distaste for his work was in the seemingly transformative influence it had upon American evangelicalism. Okay, “transformative” might be an overstatement. Nevertheless, Kinkade’s paintings, which depicted idyllic settings like gardens, streams, cottages, lighthouses, and Main Streets, steeped in pastels and dewy warmth, with appropriate Scriptural references, captured the zeitgeist of Christian Americana.

It was the “perfect” intersection of faith, art, and consumerism. Positive, inspiring, and mass-producible. Christian bookstores were Kinkadified, becoming glowing lighthouses and bucolic havens of Light and Safety for fellow travelers. Figurines and plaques bearing the “Kinkade glow” seemed to pop up everywhere, in our books, music, and clothing.The Kinkadification of Christianity had begun.

Shortly before his death, Kinkade claimed to be “America’s most-collected living artist.” No doubt, Christian consumers made this partly possible. But despite his popularity, he remained a critical pariah. One Salon columnist called Kinkade “The George Bush of art,” while Gregory Wolfe at Image Journal dubbed him “Painter of Lite.” Writes Wolfe:

Kinkade’s saccharin, soft-focus paintings of Cotswoldy cottages, glowing gardens, misty lighthouses, and quaint villages have been reproduced over ten million times, and now adorn not only people’s walls, but also La-Z-Boy recliners, screen savers, and coffee mugs all over the world. But Kinkade isn’t satisfied with his role as artist: he has invested his work with the aura of patriotism and the intentional language of a Christian missionary. When you buy one of his works, whether it is a mug or one of the mass-produced prints that are then “highlighted” by “trained master highlighters,” Kinkade wants you to believe that you are furthering the work of the Kingdom.

Indeed, Kinkade’s critics find two fronts against him: Art and Faith. Wolfe notes the “Christian missionary” approach Kinkade took. This is not something the artist would have denied. “My paintings are messengers of God’s love,” Kinkade once said. “My goal is to touch all people, to bring peace and joy into their lives through the images I create and I see my art as a ministry tool to share Jesus Christ with the masses.”

But seeing ‘art as a ministry tool” always has its problems, both from the angle of business and character. And Thomas Kinkade was bad at both.

From the L.A. Times obit:

In the last decade [Kinkade] had been locked in legal battles with former Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery owners, some of whom accused him in lawsuits of trading heavily on his Christian beliefs even as he drove them to financial ruin.

He had battled alcohol abuse, former business associates said in court records and interviews, and in 2010 his mug shot went viral after his arrest on a drunken driving charge to which he later pleaded no contest.

And for more than a year, Kinkade had been separated from his wife, Nanette, with whom he had four daughters.

Far worse stories about Thomas Kinkade abound. He was a sinful man. Surprisingly, many critics reveled in his misdeeds and have taken his death as an opportunity to remind us how much of a hack and schmuck he was. This is, in large part, due to his profession of faith. As it should be. Once we name the name of Christ we’re held to another standard, like it or not. Had Thomas Kinkade not claimed to be using his art to serve the Master, his conduct would not nearly be as scorned.

Like each and every Christian, Thomas Kinkade did not live up to the standard he professed.

This isn’t to justify Thomas Kikade’s art, faith, or business practices. If anything, Kinkade embodied the uncomfortable intersection of art and culture, the tenuous union of God and Mammon. Of course, had he used his talent for the “dark side,” and depicted blood and torture and feces, he would probably be heralded by the critics today. In choosing to be a “Painter of Light,” Kinkade brought a certain amount of criticism upon himself, as does any artist who proclaims to create for the Master.

Nevertheless, in some ways, Thomas Kinkade’s art illustrates what’s wrong with American evangelicalism — shallow, shiny, mass produced, kitsch. And the moral compromise often required to make it.

Clearly, Kinkade had his demons. He was seen as a bully, a drunk, a man prone to episodes of public disgrace, implicated in numerous financial misdeeds. But he also gave millions to charity, inspiration to many, and however misguided, sought to glorify God through his art. I can’t judge him. I don’t know his heart. His death saddens me. It’s also a sobering reminder of the cost — both artistically and morally — of claiming Christ, and the monsters waiting to devour those of us who do.

Rest in Peace, Thomas Kinkade

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 23 comments… add one }
  • sally apokedak April 11, 2012, 5:51 AM

    Very nice piece. Balanced. And I’m in agreement with much.

    But what I’d love for to argue further/clarify/prove, maybe in a future this post, is this statement: “however misguided, sought to glorify God through his art”

    What do you mean by that? Why are we misguided if we seek to glorify God through our art?

    • Mike Duran April 11, 2012, 7:31 PM

      Sally, that probably wasn’t phrased clearly. I’m suggesting Kinkade’s desire to glorify God may have gotten off track, as evidenced in his legal disputes and such. However, I DO think the concept of glorifying God in our art is pretty nebulous.

  • Dave Jacobs April 11, 2012, 7:20 AM

    I knew Tom for a brief period when I served as a pastor of the church he attended. I’ve been in his home, his private art studio. He’s been in my home. He and his wife attended a marriage enrichment small group we led. I was saddened to see how over the years his products expanded from paintings to religious trinkets. I remember pulling over at a truck stop on I-5 to buy some chips and seeing a Thomas Kinkade night-light for sale. I thought, “Oh my gosh Tom, really?”

    I agree that the “Thomas Kinkade story” could be a picture of the Americanization of Christianity and an example of the consumerism that has creeped into many churches. And although I doubt that his wife and daughters are aware of, let alone read your blog I hope they don’t find this one and have pain added to pain, which of course, is not your intention.

    • Mike Duran April 11, 2012, 7:28 AM

      Dave, I definitely don’t wish to add pain to pain. I’m saddened by his death, and for his family, but also by the convoluted legacy he leaves. I was tempted to portray Kinkade as a victim of sorts to greater powers and passions. But I’m not sure that’s accurate either. Thanks for writing.

      • Jessica Thomas April 11, 2012, 10:25 AM

        I don’t know that his legacy is all that convoluted. He’s was a man seeking God who messed up along the way. His mess ups just happened to be more public than most. However, I understand his legacy may seem convoluted to nonbelievers who have no Biblical context. That’s the unfortunate part. However, hopefully his positive influence far exceeds the negative.

  • Lyndie Blevins April 11, 2012, 8:04 AM

    As always,Mike, you have given me much to think about.

  • Kat Heckenbach April 11, 2012, 8:14 AM

    This is odd. I started, and scrapped, a blog post this week about this very thing. Not Thomas Kinkade–but rather your ultimate point of the whole Christian trinket thing.

    Easter got me thinking about religious holidays in general, and how irritated I get with Christians who slam things like Santa and the “commercialization” of the holidays, as if plastic reindeer and stockings–stuff we see as simply stuff and no more–denigrate Christ and Christmas. Yet, some of the same people have no issue with reducing Christ to a calendar or a nightlight.

    I have no problem with “symbols” of faith. But those symbols have too often become Christian tchotchkes.

    (BTW–I have no comment on Kinkade himself. I knew nothing about his personal life, mainly because I have never cared for his art. It’s a sad thing when anyone dies, though, and I pray for comfort to his family.)

  • Ane Mulligan April 11, 2012, 8:25 AM

    We all make bad choices in life, sin, and do the wrong thing. Like Paul said, he did what he didn’t want to do and didn’t do what he wanted to. So it is with man. And it doesn’t matter what the world says of us. God knows our heart and He knows Thomas Kinkade’s. I’m sure this great artist heard as he entered the gates of Heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

    May we all finish as well.

  • Jill April 11, 2012, 8:42 AM

    As the daughter of a painter and an incurable cynic, I’ve long mocked Thomas Kinkade for his shiny, happy paintings that seem to run off of feeling rather than good craftsmanship. But I have a confession to make. Years ago somebody gave us “A Child’s Christmas at St. Nicholas Circle,” which is a poignant story about self-sacrifice and treating others as though they matter [illustrated with his paintings, of course]. I can’t read that book without choking up and crying. And because I’m not one to show emotion, I avoid reading it to my children–or I sit for a few minutes and convince myself I have a heart of steel before commencing. So in the end, the whats-it in his artwork affected me. I don’t know what else to say, except blessings and peace to his family and hope that he’s with God now, after he struggled here on earth.

  • Gina Burgess April 11, 2012, 9:09 AM

    Yes, we are called to a higher standard living under Grace, of course we are. But, do we?

    Is one sin greater than another when even one sin in the whole world would still have nailed Jesus to the cross of His own free will? Yes, I know, there are passages that indicate there is greater punishment for some sins than others.

    But, Mike, when you say you are not judging and yet you write a post with this raised eyebrow and a slight frown on your forehead and a twitch to your mustache, aren’t you being judgmental? Don’t we still have that verse “All things work for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.” To me this includes a life that may not have been lived to the highest standard, yet God loved him anyway. God has used his art. God will still use his art. Someone may say one day, “He was no better than I am and God loved him in spite of it all.”

    If you have not walked in his shoes, you cannot know what demons he was fighting. I have walked that path, and it is no picnic. Christian trinkets? So what? Some people find them comforting. What is the difference between a verse written on a postcard taped to your bathroom mirror and a Kincaid night light with a verse written on it? It serves the same purpose, I’m thinking.

    Okay… I’ll get off my soapbox, now. The mic, anyone?

    • Amy L Harden April 11, 2012, 9:35 AM

      I agree.

    • Mike Duran April 11, 2012, 9:39 AM

      Gina, I agree with pretty much everything you say here. God loved Thomas Kinkade and God probably used his art. I’m no better than him and he was no worse than me. The only “judgment” I’m making here is the most obvious, his public legal and moral issues (THIS Wikipedia article goes into the details I avoided), the art elites criticism, and how his art contributed to the spate of “Jesus junk.” Am I dismissing his work? Not so much. As I said, “He wasn’t a bad artist.” I’m just trying to highlight how I think Kinkade — probably unintentionally — furthered a trend in American Christianity that has not been healthy.

      • Gina Burgess April 11, 2012, 10:52 AM

        I understand, Mike. I’m truly not criticizing you! I know that the post card with a hand written verse is much more economical and helps the learner because of writing it, but takes longer and is not as pretty as buying something off the shelf.

        The guy who came to fix my microwave said something to me this morning and I had to laugh even though it is very true… “They aren’t making women like they used to.” It was in response to me using the microwave all the time and when it went dark, I boiled over my coffee this morning using a pan on the stove. It’s easier to pop something in the microwave than to cook. It’s a trend that is sad but true. 🙂

  • Katherine Coble April 11, 2012, 9:14 AM

    I’ve not ever worshipped with Kinkade or been to his house; I certainly can’t call him ‘Tom’ with any permission of earthly familiarity.

    In my former life, however, I did do a lot of work with his marketing people on a project that is still classified by my former employer. Based on the hours of conversation, the flurry of documents and many other incidentals over a period lasting four years I can safely say that my impression of Thomas Kinkade was of a man who was interested in becoming very, very wealthy.

    In that ambition I feel like he was both cause and symptom of our current American Christianity’s desire to become very, very wealthy. Kinkade licensing his pictures, slapping them onto every possible thing to sell to a public who considers purchasing a form of communion…that’s pretty much the story of the American Christianity Circa 2000-2012.

    I’ve sat in meetings where non-Christians have declared that a Christian will “buy any crap with a Bible Verse or Kinkade picture on it” and been unable to prove those men wrong.

    The pictures themselves are often quite lovely. But, like Christianity, that loveliness is not so appealing when it’s got a price tag continually stuck to it.

  • Amy L Harden April 11, 2012, 9:33 AM

    This is an incredibly honest article on a man and his art.

    I am not a big fan of Thomas Kinkade, as my favorite Christian artists are one’s that paint Christ or scenes from the Bible. I am not sure if there is an artist that is famous…living or dead…Christian or not…that didn’t have their demons to fight or could claim they were chaste or pure of heart. I believe that most artists or writers with God-given talent and gifts are tortured by the devil ESPECIALLY if they speak aloud their faith through their art or writing. They are the target of the Evil One as they are a vehicle or megaphone for the Almighty to proclaim His work. Maybe it is through the art that God makes all things possible or turns what the devil wanted for bad in to good…despite the person’s weak character or inability to walk the narrow path.

    In any case, I have heard recently the opinion of Christian art, writing and even film is that it is too saccharin…not of the world, which may be very true as the lives of those who are creating Christian art maybe far from what is depicted/written or their lives demonstrate. An honest approach to Christian Living…the TRUE picture is what is needed and understood by all…even the ugly side. Is this what you were trying to get at with your article?

    I believe Thomas Kinkade was merely a man with great artistic talent, who may have had poor business skills, a weakness to drink, struggled with relationships, but still was able to channel what God had given him through his art in to a message that for some is one of beauty and hope for life or Light. I respect him and do not judge him…the man used his talent and hopefully died empty with all of it released! God called him home for a reason….his legacy is his art.

    • Mike Duran April 11, 2012, 2:29 PM

      Amy, I do think there’s a correlation between the overly cheery, sentimental vibe of Kinkade’s work and Christian art in general. Much Christian fiction suffers the same thing.

  • Gina Burgess April 11, 2012, 10:53 AM

    I agree

  • Marcia April 11, 2012, 11:53 AM

    Exactly this: He captured the zeitgeist of Christian Americana.

    To at least some degree, once Kinkade announced that his art was a ministry tool, he became bound to “shallow, shiny, mass-produced kitch,” because evangelical Christians struggle with any art that is something less than obvious. When you announce your art as a ministry tool, you stand to burn all your bridges unless you stay religiously correct. If you don’t toe the mark, the church will swiftly denounce you, and the mainstream won’t have you. IMO, artists of any type are better off keeping their mouths closed, digging deeply into their relationship with Christ, and creating out of that.

    I remember loving the first few paintings of his that I saw. I’m all for lovely cottages and beautiful flower gardens. But after a while, the same thing all the time becomes static. And that’s ultimately how I saw him — as a static artist who couldn’t grow.

    • sally apokedak April 11, 2012, 2:07 PM

      Very interesting and worth chewing on. Thanks, Marcia.

  • Susan April 11, 2012, 6:20 PM

    What it all boils down to is that the human condition is one of sin and disgrace. But, by the Grace offered us by Jesus Christ we are saved – whether other people see God’s Light in us and in the things we do is up to us. Beauty always leads to God, but sometimes the fallen, sinful nature of a man (no matter how famous) can show the path to God, as well. Art is certainly subjective. Taste is personal. Thomas Kinkade’s work is pleasing to me. I enjoy the sublime colors and quaint scenes of his imagination.

  • AC friend April 19, 2012, 10:38 PM

    The Good Book offers a warning…”diligently keep your heart”… “From the Heart flow the issues of life”. proverbs 4:23…let’s keep this straight…While I don’t portend to know TK’s heart, I doubt whether he was ever truly a Christ Follower. It was clear from his Art Center days on that 1.) His ambition was to be famous and a renowned artist ABOVE ALL ELSE 2.) the fruit of his lifestyle even back then was questionably “Christian” …even perverted and certainly not surrendered to Christ even while signing his paintings with a fish symbol 3.) A pathological narcissist…harsh, but true…relationship with him was impossible, I never existed as a fellow artist to Thom…I grew wearisome of only reflecting his own brilliance to himself …Once during a visit to the art store, he pointed out a book and said it contained a mastic recipe he used as a medium for his oils. He said it was the secret to why his paintings, “glistened”. He had a melt-down after I purchased the book for myself. I visited a fellow Art Center student at his workplace at Hanna Barbara studios…Thom had a tantrum because I didn’t invite him to go along…He then visited Disney animation studios and touted his glorious experience before obtaining work for Bakshi…self deification is self idolatry and it never surprised me that he marketed himself along with his art as something Godly to Christiandom. This is the hypocritical stench that many can’t stand…Christians can be flawed and repentant, but to be flawed and make millions touting Godliness in the midst of gross sin is equal to being a charlatan. Truly, he needed a new heart for what flowed from it was only self serving. Talented? Absolutely. A prodigy? Yes…he once signed a sketch he drew of me and said “Here, that will mean something some day.” I knew he was right and I threw it away that evening, refusing to profit from the most self-centered egotist I’ve ever encountered. Did the self proclaimed “Painter of Light” ever really find the light? His life lived out from the issues of his own heart draw controversy on that. I’ll be interested in the Lord’s true summation of Thom’s fruit, if it exists, lived out on earth from his heart, in the hereafter. The Lord also says, “Submit yourself to God, resist the devil and he will flee from you” James 4:7…people, he had demons because he wasn’t submitted!!!! He left his wife and family so he could, “live as a free-spirited artist” ????? Or was that a cover-up for being kicked out of his own home? I think God was merciful to take him home when He did…enough self inflicted wounds and embarrassment. Enough is enough is enough. If we try to find our life apart from Christ, we lose it, if we lose our life in Christ, we will find it. Thom used Christiandom to elevate himself and profit personally and professionally…period. I’m glad his paintings bring something meaningful to so many, but by knowing him early on ruined any of that for me -forever. And I do hope you are resting in peace Thom.

    • Barb July 11, 2013, 11:35 PM

      AC, If what you said, about Mr Kinkade, never being a true Christ follower, than
      you were incorrect in stating later, in your post, that God took him home.
      I am saddened for Mr Kinkade. I think he fooled lots of Christian folk, but he did not fool the Lord. I thought his art work was beautiful, and inspiring. I also enjoyed reading his “Cape Light” novels. Yet, even in these books I saw hints of
      some erroneous doctrinal beliefs, which seemed to be somewhat universalist.
      I have been truly saddened to learn these things about Thomas Kinkade. I wish they were not so. My heart breaks for him, and his family.

      • Steve January 11, 2018, 5:53 PM

        Interesting comment. I have the CD “Music of Light” that features his art on the inside. While listening to the CD I feel though as nice as the music is, it sounds universalistic, even from the lyrics in the songs.

Leave a Comment