Most art critics can't stand painter Thomas Kinkade's work, and no one knows that better than Kinkade himself. Grabbing one of his collector's-edition plates off a display table in his Northern California studio cottage, he recalls the scorn that greeted the plate's debut. "I had some people say, 'Oh, that's cheesy, man,' " he says. " 'That's kitsch.' "
That's debatable, but what's not is Kinkade's clout as a one-man art industry. With his idyllic landscapes adorning everything from cookie tins to La-Z-Boy recliners, Kinkade, 42, sold $126 million worth of merchandise last year through his Web site and a network of 300 Kinkade-only galleries in malls and tourist locations around the U.S. Fans of his lithographic prints, which cost between $250 and $20,000, include Kathie Lee Gifford and Robert Wagner. Despite the critical bashing—"He doesn't fit in the art world, he fits in the business world," says the San Francisco Chronicle's Kenneth Baker—the first painter listed on the New York Stock Exchange is undaunted. "Maybe I'm a Steven Spielberg," says Kinkade, who is worth more than $24 million and employs 500 people to manufacture and sell his products. "You need mainstream pioneers who get people excited about painting."
Take Paula Ricketts, 58, a real estate broker from Auburn, Calif., who owns three Kinkade prints. "He's the only painter who depicts the quaintness of American life," she says. "I can walk down that sidewalk, stand in front of that cottage, because Kinkade brings me there."
Kinkade—a born-again Christian who calls God his "art agent"—gets himself there each morning at 5:30, when he begins work in the rustic wooden studio just 50 feet from the five-bedroom house where his wife, Nanette, 40 (whom he met in middle school), home-schools their daughters Merritt, 11, Chandler, 8, Winsor, 5, and Everett, 2. Despite selling his wares on QVC, Kinkade doesn't own a TV; he entertains his family (whose initials he often hides in his work) playing parlor games and painting with the kids.
It's a tableau that wouldn't be out of place in a work by his hero, Norman Rockwell, but life wasn't always so picturesque. Kinkade's parents divorced when he was 5. His mother, Marianne, a secretary, raised him in Placerville—36 miles east of Sacramento—along with his siblings Kate, now 49, a claims adjuster, and Patrick, 40, a sociology professor who runs 12 Kinkade galleries in Texas. "There wasn't much stability," recalls Kinkade. He attended art school at Berkeley, but quit after two years, frustrated with the school's philosophy. "My professors would say, 'Art should be all about you,' " Kinkade recalls. "That's a very self-centered approach."
In 1982, after a year in a Hollywood animation studio, he married Nanette, a former nurse, and moved back to Placerville to sell his work. His first success came in 1984, when he produced 1,000 prints of Placerville—1916 that sold for $35 apiece (each would now fetch $4,000). With help from investors, he opened 10 galleries around the country. In early 1998 he had more than 100; he has nearly tripled that since. "It's a powerful, well-oiled distribution and manufacturing system," says Dave Lavigne, an equities analyst for Denver's EBI Securities. "It's art meets Wall Street."
Kinkade gives credit to Rockwell, who, he says, "took lofty ideas and translated them into simple terms." The San Francisco Examiner's David Bonetti counters that Kinkade's is a "world that would exist if everyone was on Prozac." But Kinkade knows what he's after. "I paint scenes that serve as places of refuge for battle-weary people," Kinkade says. "The world is filled with enough darkness. I don't want to add to that."
Russell Scott Smith
Ken Baker in San Jose
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine