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.”
These private interpretations can’t stray too far from the homespun canon; Kinkade provides too many signposts, Rager says. “There is a direct tie between different symbols and their meaning in his work. An eagle means freedom. Clouds are thoughts of lost loved ones. The light, which is ubiquitous in his work, is supposed to be the light of God. This is very carefully spelled out in a lot of the literature” his dealers distribute.
“Evoking spirituality without necessarily being programmatic is very appealing to people,” notes Boylan. “Christians who look at Kinkade might see specifically Christian iconography.... But a lot of non-Christians look at his images and see a generalized spirituality.”
“Generalized,” of course, is a dirty word to many art critics and scholars, who argue that vagueness--like sentimentality--is anathema to real art. His work “combines these cues that tell you ‘this isn’t today,’ but [in most cases] he doesn’t anchor it in any particular moment,” Rager explains.
Nor any particular place. Kinkade has cited his hometown of Placerville, California, as an inspiration for some images, but with a few exceptions, they don’t contain recognizable landmarks. That's a key difference between his work and that of Norman Rockwell, an artist he deeply admired, and one who has gradually achieved a level of highbrow respect.
“I feel [Kinkade] would hope for a similar kind of critical reassessment,” says Rager, who doubts it will happen. She notes that Rockwell's art, grounded in a distinct time and place, has "a kind of specificity that eludes Kinkade." (His representatives did not respond to a request for an interview.)
While the artist and the company that creates his prints and products faced financial and legal difficulties in recent years, his images are basically devoid of emotional darkness. Whether you find that cloying or comforting is “the essential divide between people who respond to his work and people who don’t,” Boylan says. “It all comes down to: What part of yourself do you want to see reflected when you look at a work of art?”
“Kinkade’s work participates in this vision that there was a world that was Edenic and perfect, and if we could only get back to that, things would be perfect again,” Rager says. The world Kinkade — who referred to himself as born-again — portrays “is not in any way real," she adds. "It’s a pastiche of concepts from that Edenic past.”
Unlike so many of her colleagues, Boylan doesn’t find that approach reflexively off-putting. “We can’t have it both ways," she insists. "We can’t be in a country in which we say, ‘Artists have to fight in the marketplace,’ and then when an artist fights in the marketplace and finds success, dismiss them by saying, ‘They’re not my romantic ideal of a starving artist.’
"Matisse at one point said he wanted to create art that was like an armchair that people could fall into. 'Soothing' is not how a lot of people would define a lot of the art you see in museums and galleries, but historically, a lot of art has been produced with the sole purpose of being beautiful and comforting, and giving people pleasure."