thomas-kinkade-oil-paintingIn 2012 Thomas Kinkade, “America’s Painter of Light” died in his sleep at his home in California. He was fifty-four. Three years earlier another American realist painter–Andrew Wyeth–died in his sleep in his Pennsylvania home. He was ninety-one. Both men worked hard and established popular reputations for their realistic renditions of American landscapes and homespun scenes. Eschewing the savagery, absurdity, and violence of the modern art scene, both Wyeth and Kinkade became famous and wealthy through their seemingly conservative vision of America.

Thomas Kinkade portrayed nostalgic scenes of small town America in intense pastel colors. Old-fashioned main street scenes with Victorian houses lit from within welcomed people home. Country cottages set in fantasy landscapes evoked happy memories of an America that never has been and never shall be. Unashamedly patriotic, Kinkade drew on his Evangelical Protestant faith, signing his paintings with the ICTHUS fish sign and the Bible reference John 3:16. Kinkade’s art was conservative, Christian kitsch, and by golly, was it popular!

Kinkade sold his works on the QVC network, by mail order, and through retail outlets in America’s shopping malls. Using modern photographic reproduction techniques his mass produced prints were “hand crafted” by studio artists adding paint brush effects to the high quality prints. With lucrative licensing agreements, Kinkade’s work reached a wider audience through calendars, puzzles, and greeting cards in low-end retail outlets like Walmart. Kinkade churned his work out in over 120 books and began to market his work worldwide. He is reported to have earned $53 million between 1993 and 2005.

With his combination of native ability, hard work, entrepreneurship, and his ability to reach a mass market, Kinkade, like a latter day Walt Disney, might be seen as a poster boy for the practical virtues of American conservatism. His artwork combines Christianity, a down home conservative vision, nostalgia, patriotism, hard work and huge financial success. He’s a great American conservative artist right?

Wrong. Kinkade communicates everything bogus and stereotypical about American conservatism. His Christianity turns out to be a pious facade. Accused of cheating business partners, cutting out on agreements, and raking in the cash through unscrupulous deals, by the time of his untimely death, Kinkade’s personal reputation was in tatters. About to be divorced by his wife and living with his mistress, Kinkade was reputed to be a public drunk, a lout and a weary wealthy hypocrite of the worst kind. He died, living with his mistress, estranged from his wife and children in a drink and drug induced haze.

Was Kinkade’s downfall merely the result of the famous “artistic temperament” or was there a deeper problem? The deeper problem is that everything about Kinkade was artificial. His paintings were mass produced prints sold as original artworks. His business was a shallow money grubbing enterprise cashing in on Americans’ lack of taste and love for sentimental, jingoistic, religious kitsch. His conservatism was shallow and artificial, and it is this kind of kitsch conservatism which is rightly revolting.

If Kinkade’s work can be characterized as kitsch, then the work of Andrew Wyeth is the kitchen sink. Like Kinkade, Wyeth painted bucolic scenes—landscapes, farmhouses and rustic interiors. In contrast to Kinkade’s bright pastel palette, Wyeth’s vision is communicated in sepia tones, muted browns, tans, the charcoal of dark interiors and the pale austerity of whitewashed farm buildings and winter snow drifts. His down home America is as practical and realistic as the hunting rifle on the wall, the barn door, and the kitchen sink.

Andrew WyethWyeth paints an American landscape of stark realities–a farm woman struck with polio who crawls around her limited world, a drifter, an old soldier and a farmhouse set in a bleak Pennsylvania hillside. Here a dead deer hanging and ready for butchering, there a simple farmer’s barn. A window. A basket. An old woman at the table. A desperate boy running across a winter field.

Wyeth also ended his days wealthy and famous, but his fame and fortune were the fruit of decades of steady, painstaking work. Instead of grinding out mass produced “paintings” for popular consumption, Wyeth would work for months on one canvas–doing countless drawings and preliminary studies before completing the final work. His art grew out of his own visceral attachment to the Pennsylvania and Maine localities where he lived and worked his entire life. He had depth.

If Kinkade illustrates the worst aspects of American conservatism–a sickening sentimentality, shallow prosperity gospel Christianity and ruthless Walmart marketing, Wyeth illustrates an authentic conservatism–rooted in deep personal emotion, an understated faith in goodness, beauty and truth, a concern for value instead of money and a disregard for marketing. Wyeth said he didn’t care if his paintings sold or not, but added wryly in a Yankee way, that if they did sell he hoped they’d fetch a good price.

Furthermore, Wyeth and Kinkade’s approach to the past illustrates kitsch conservatism vs. kitchen sink conservatism. Kinkade grabs the European tradition of impressionism, with its pastel colors, country landscapes and handling of light and re-cycles it in a vulgar way to capitalize on it. Wyeth, on the other hand, picks up the realistic tradition of the Flemish masters, Rembrandt, Eakins, Hopper and his father N.C. Wyeth and through hard work and talent develops a unique and powerful vision–creating a new synthesis of his own experience and the great tradition. Kinkade simply copies and corrupts for profit.

The kitsch conservative does the same. He does a smash and grab on the great tradition–creating a pastiche of the past for profit. He takes from his heritage what he thinks he can sell. He plunders patriotism, sells sentimentalism, and cynically uses religion for his own ends.

The kitchen sink conservative, like Andrew Wyeth, has deep roots in the past, and from those emotional, intellectual and spiritual roots he builds something beautiful, good, and true which lasts forever.

Books on the topics discussed in this poem may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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32 replies to this post
  1. Provocation: 1, Tact: 0

    As a boy, I was always enchanted by the mass paintings by Thomas Kinkade which hung majestically on the walls and in the staircase of my grandparents’ house. They already live in a rural setting; country farms surround their Tennessee home and a small wood lies just behind their back porch. The Kinkade works, however, seem to enhance that rustic atmosphere. The bright colors, quiet waters, peaceful setting, and homey feeling his paintings create made my imagination race as a child, and sometimes it still does. I would find myself staring at his country cottages hidden away in some secret cranny of God’s green earth and would impose a story on them. I would just make a story up on the spot, imaging what life could be like divorced from the worries of modern day materialism and industrialization.

    The farthest thing from my mind was the lack of artistic authenticity and Kinkade’s “ruthless Walmart marketing.” I was neither concerned with the means by which it was produced or the producer himself (and all his alleged moral failures). I simply liked the art for what it was. It gave me a taste of beauty and challenged my moral imagination to think about how life could be like -how it ought to be. There is nothing more conservative, sir.

    I find this piece strong, provocative, and overall very well-written. I was certainly surprised at the abrupt change in tone and direction starting at the fifth paragraph. I suppose, Mr. Longenecker, that you expect congratulations for your systematic destruction of another individual’s business and character. This I cannot do.

    First of all, you point out this artist’s personal failures but with no accompanying research by which the reader may easily confirm these allegations. However, I assume you are an honest man and that your statements are correct. While I do not seek to diminish the severity of these moral faults (I will likely never buy a painting of his because of them), I do not see how they are directly related to the art itself, nor do I think it fair to categorically condemn his entire career for moral mistakes that may have been committed only later in his life. I do not think it is responsible to use TIC as a platform to tear down another person’s character without some form of rebuttal. Certainly you don’t believe Kinkade to be a devil through and through? This piece simply does not reflect the spirit of Christian charity I find so prevalent among other pieces.

    Next, I can’t understand how Kinkade is selling some sort of “prosperity gospel.” I do know he has some paintings of church buildings, and you cite his use of the ICTHUS symbol, but that doesn’t really persuade me of anything. We should applaud rather than condemn artistic attempts to incorporate images that stir up the spiritual elements of the moral imagination.

    Finally, I see no real criticism of the art itself other than vague attempts to connect it to the “European tradition of impressionism” in its portrayal of “fantasy landscapes of an America that never was and never will be.” To me, however, this is a mere difference in taste. To launch an all out assault on Kinkade’s work simply because his paintings lack the realistic qualities of other artists’ is a bit absurd.

    Mr. Longenecker, it is my duty as a Christian to esteem others better than myself. I am trying to discern what noble motive could have inspired you to write this piece. An explanation that I have come up with is that your love of truth and beauty and faith required nothing less than a scathing repudiation of what you perceive to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If this is truly your motivation, I cannot be too upset and must part sober disagreement. However, I do want to point out how insensitive your piece might have come across to others. Regardless of the tone or intent, it smacks of elitism and did nothing more for me than destroy childhood dreams about a life that could possibly be elevated above the ugliness and slime of our present human condition.

    It might be said that I simply need to grow up, to come to grips with reality, to understand that the character of the producer and the means of production are intrinsically tied up in the value of a piece of art, that to divorce these details from reality is childish naiveté, well perhaps so. But some part of me still wants to appreciate art for what it is. I don’t care if something is “shallow” or “artificial.” If it evokes something higher in me, then what is that to anyone else? I guess that disqualifies me from being an artistic elitist, but I don’t think it automatically puts me in the camp of the libertarian materialist either. His moral failures are indeed disappointing, but I like Kinkade’s work because of what IT is, not who HE is. And I like it not in spite of its imaginary qualities, but BECAUSE of them. Like C.S. Lewis said of the “New Narnia: “[it was] deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.”

    I hope I have communicated my feelings in a civil way. I mean no disrespect. I hope you have a wonderful holiday weekend! :)

  2. I’m not persuaded. There might be more to conservativism than deer carcasses and marginal characters in a marginal landscape, and the portrayal of simple ideals and familiar beauty need not a bad thing. The cult of originality, usually expressed by seeing new darknesses, is among the errors of the Enlightenment rebellion. I am not revolted or nauseated by Kinkade’s work, though I agree it hasn’t the depth of Wyeth’s.

  3. This kind of commentary is why I love TIC. Fr. Longenecker has the sensibility to give Andrew Wyeth’s work the credit that it much deserves but seldom receives, and he has the courage to give Thomas Kinkade’s work the scorn that it much deserves but seldom receives. As Father suggests, this crisis of authenticity among conservatives extends far beyond the the canvas.

  4. I somewhat agree with umphrey on this one; the description of Kincade and kitsch conservatism strikes me as fairly apt. And the frustration with the kind of shallow thought implicit in such a mode is quite palpable, as well it should be. But kitchen conservatism — I’m not sure I buy that. And the description of Wyeth seems to reduce the artist to little more than a symbol. Frankly the notion of kitchen conservatism seems closer to his father than to Andrew — and I say that not wishing to in anyway diminish NC’s own extraordinary accomplishments. Andrew captured something of the feeling of isolation and alienation that is so often called merely the modern condition, but is too complex to be so easily reduced. His work shows echoes of modern art movements, most particularly surrealism and symbolisme, which play off of his naturalism to create awkward ironies. This is not a purely conservative painting just because it is realistic. Rather it reflects the sobering questions of change and transformation that one would expect to find tugging at the edges of a healthy conservatism. I would call it liberal-conservatism, not kitchen sink conservatism — a conservatism that embraces the slow progressivism that Burke championed.

  5. Welcome, Father Dwight! You had me fooled, and my heart sank into my boots before your piece turned about so cleverly. Then I soared as the lark. Good point, good writing, good taste, good command of art history and, Good Lord, many thanks!

  6. A quick follow-up. I reserve my scorn solely for Kinkade’s work; the details of the artist’s life evoke my empathy. Perhaps Mr. Kinkade was so sick in his soul that he used his art to create a salutary beauty that he could not find in everyday life. No matter how much bad money he made off his work, his real motivation may have been to transform the world in some way, and alcohol, ironically, probably reinforced his belief in that mission during moments of doubt. I am not playing arm-chair psychiatrist: One look at a mall or a box store at this time of year suggests that most of us are plagued by a similar delusion. The difference with Andrew Wyeth is that he was strong enough to face the world’s suffering and loneliness. We can admire such strength and still feel charity toward one particular soul named Thomas Kinkade, who once was among the suffering.

    • Good grief. And I suppose Samuel J. Butcher created “Precious Moments” to deal with his own St. John of the Cross-style Dark Night of the Soul, and Elena Kucharik and Linda Denham created “the Care Bears” to escape the horrors of a potential Third World War. While we’re at it, maybe “H.R. Pufnstuf” was Sid and Marty Krofft’s answer to the theodicy problem.

      Or maybe, just maybe, we’re taking all this more seriously than it merits.

  7. Abigail, my point about Kincade’s sordid life was in contrast to his very public witness of conservative Evangelical Christianity. Wyeth was also unfaithful in marriage, but he didn’t trumpet any explicit Christian belief nor use it to sell his paintings.

  8. I can’t claim–won’t–any knowledge of art. Kinkade’s work seemed to me to be a little off. Still, in the style of the Sixties and Seventies fantasy paintings, they may have been a starting point for daydreaming, even minus marijuana.
    Wyeth’s work tells us that life is tough. Certainly, the soldier, sweating in the heat, with grain dust in his throat and eyes and horrid memories coming back when the work is repetitive, speaks to any who’ve done that kind of work–hand agriculture or soldiering.
    Why either is associated with conservatism is beyond me. Maybe it’s because Wyeth’s folks don’t quit. On the other hand, they don’t have a choice. Kinkade romanticizes a version of home. So?

    • They are both conservatives in an artistic sense, i.e. they both believed paintings should represent something–unlike the vast majority of their twentieth-century peers!

    • They were both artistic conservatives–attempting to draw on the roots of Western art to develop a new, modern and applicable synthesis. Wyeth did so successfully and so represents authentic conservatism. Kincade did so in a crass, maudlin and kitsch way–thus representing the worst of stereotypical, American conservatism.

  9. So one should never ever have chocolate cake, and always have brussel sprouts for dinner.
    This piece strikes me as trollbait.
    Suffering is not more real than happiness.
    .The idea of ‘being realistic’ needs to be shunned, as Realism tends to be an a priori assumption that Reality is ugly.

  10. Anyone who loves Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, as well as N.C., or Jamie Wyeth, would really be quite excited by visiting Brandywine Museum in Brandywine. PA. It is as unassumiing as Andrew Wyeth himself. Too much to say about it, but just know when you go, often just a handful of people and you can walk into the surroundings, whether the barn, the studio of N.C., the hillside, the houses, etc you will feel part of their artwork.

  11. Fr. Longenecker says what I’ve long thought to be the crux of conservatism, especially as practiced by the likes of political leaders in the last 100 years. I came of age, so to speak, in the 50’s, feasting on Kirk, Hayek, Burke, Taft, and others, but one man and one party was enough to show me the crack in the seams of conservatism as a political philosophy. That man was Joseph McCarthy and the Republican Party. The lady from Maine, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, was the redeeming voice of conservatism, until she and the few like her were drowned by the rise of Gingrichism in 1994.

  12. What difference does an artist’s personal life make? Kinkade should be judged by his work, which sucked, as do paintings of Jesus on black velvet and a whole lot of avant garde garbage that you can see in any museum in the country. It’s not about the person, it’s not about the art, it’s about the marketing..

  13. I will make my point again: Kincade’s sordid personal life only has a bearing on his artwork inasmuch as he touted Christianity as a kind of trademark for his work–blatantly using his faith to sell his art. That he failed as a Christian can only elicit sympathy from fellow sinners. That he used his Christian profession to sell his brummagem artwork is the reason to admit his moral failings to the discussion.

  14. Interesting.
    Back about 1969 or 1970, I had (!) to take a one-semester course in “Art Appreciation”. Of course, one of the pieces we “appreciated” was *Christina’s World* (see above). The instructor was going on (and on, and on) about how the painting was exemplifying melancholy and depression with the unpainted farmhouse and such. I asked him if he had ever been in a rural area for any length of time.. He said “No.” I then informed him that unpainted houses did not represent melancholia, they were normal in some parts of the country, and what the painting showed to other people was the person looking hopefully toward their house. This not being the approved interpretation, I was lucky not to flunk the class.
    And, yes, Wyeth’s work is very evocative of “home” with all its good and pains.

  15. I always appreciate Fr Longenecker’s commentaries, but find myself on the receiving end of his disapproval this time. I love many of Kincade’s paintings, so what does that make me? Before I am dismissed as an artistic philistine, let me say that I also love Shakespeare and Mozart even more. And regarding Kincade’s sins and hypocrisy, surely he was not half the sinner nor a quarter of the hypocrit as King David, who did famously repent and we can only hope the same of Kincade during his last hours. No one knows the judgment of God, so we can only assume that King David was forgiven, and pray for the same contrition from and mercy for Thomas Kincade. Surely we are not to the point of judging a man based on reports in the media? I for one am grateful that I will be judged by God and not by man, and that He will read my heart, and not the local newspaper.

  16. If Kinkade could paint people, I have yet to see evidence of it. His paintings are devoid of actual human beings, mere celebrations of landscapes and architecture. I suppose it’s just as well he was accepted as an artist, though; another well-known would-be artist with similar preferences chose a much worse line of work when his art would not sell.

    Give me “dogs playing cards” rather than either Kinkade or Wyeth, though. If necessary, I can make up a “conservative” justification.

  17. Actually, yes, Kinkade painted a lot of people! I have several friends who love his work. An especially beautiful painting, which I have a print, is of men and a boy praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Also, he painted whole stadiums full of people at a NASCAR race and baseball games. Wonderful details of people’s faces and personalities. I am not a fan, but I can appreciate his abilities apart from marketing, etc. His Plein Aire paintings are some of his best, most natural.

      • They don’t like black velvet Elvises, either. Does that mean that black velvet paintings of Elvis are in fact under-appreciated masterpieces filled with profound meaning for Conservatives?

        No.

        Schmaltzy kitsch is schmaltzy kitsch, even if it is rewarded by the great god Mammon, and quality art is quality art even if it is also popular. Kinkade produced the former, Rockwell the latter.

        • What it means is sophisticates like what they’ve been told sophisticates like and dislike what they’ve been told sophisticates dislike. That’s how they know they’re sophisticates. Otherwise, nobody would know.

  18. I have always admired Andrew Wyeth’s work for, as you say, Fr. Dwight, his having the courage to say in essence, “Life is Hard”. And lonely, and uncertain, and, in the final analysis, we each face it alone.

    Thomas Kinkade, I have always thought, was trying to evoke dreams of what it might feel like to be in Heaven. Things like being always warm and feeling at home, knowing you will be welcomed; living amidst beauty and light and shimmering color, with no violence or threat thereof evident anywhere. His world was always “too perfect” for me. But my heart aches for “home”, with my Heavenly Father; a place or state where there is no more killing or graft, suffering or unfairness. Despite what Mr. Kinkade made of his talent vis business, I believe he set out longing for God. I am glad that despite all, somehow his vision of a relative “heaven”, which seems almost sickeningly sweet to some, was made available to people with little $$ who need some beauty and hope.

  19. I recall seeing Wyeth’s Helga exhibit in the late 80s while in D.C. for a young conservatives conference. The view of our little group as we wandered through the seemingly endless rooms of paintings was simply that the man was obsessed.

  20. I never loved Kinkade, but it was not until I read a critique of the “painter of light” and his ridiculous use of light that I understood why. Now, when I see a Kinkade painting, all I can think is “holy, moly, the whole house must be on fire!!!”

  21. Criticism of Kinkade and his commercial success seems to be an easy fall-back for the academic elite. I’ve heard that argument hashed and rehashed for the past two decades in the coffee shops of the little college town in which I live.

    I do agree that the Wyeth paintings have something important to say about real American life, but using Wyeth as a springboard to eviscerate Kinkade and the audience inspired by him seems to paint with too broad of a stroke.

    Other than that, I second Alan Groves’ comment.

  22. The painting of the woman: she was not struck with polio, as you put it. She was born with a very rare neurodegenerative disorder. We discussed it in medical school.

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