Kinkade, the American artist who promoted himself with the registered trademark "Painter of Light," was unique among contemporary painters: He established what the the Associated Press rightly described as a commercial art empire, encompassing "franchised galleries, reproduced artwork and spin-off products said to fetch at their peak some $100 million annually and [to] adorn roughly 10 million homes." In addition to hand-signed lithographs and canvas prints, licensed Kinkade products include "books and posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines" -- even jigsaw puzzles.
So what will be the financial fate of all that stuff, now that Kinkade's career is at an end?
Few Originals, and Even Less Artistic Merit
"While he was probably the most financially successful artist in the United States, the resale value of his works [is] very, very limited," says Deborah Solon, an art historian who once participated in a symposium on Kinkade at New York University. "Most of what he did was in multiples; there are very few originals. Most were serigraphs or lithographs, and then sometimes he or somebody else would maybe hand color them, he would occasionally add a stroke or two, or he might sign them, but they were limited editions. Anything that's a print, that is done in multiple editions, inherently has less value than an original piece of art."
Nevertheless, Kinkade's work has certainly been selling more swiftly in the short term. According to the AP, a painting that "sat unsold for years" in the gallery where Kinkade's "career first took off" -- with a $110,000 price tag -- was bought for $150,000 after the artist died. (The owner of the painting, which was being sold on consignment, called the gallery after the news broke to ask for the price to be raised.) "Other galleries across the country that specialize in Kinkade's work are reporting a similar surge in sales," the AP reports: Limited edition reproductions with Kinkade's original signature are "in high demand," fetching prices from $8,000 to $15,000. (Regular Kinkade prints usually retail for between $40 and $200.)
"It's certainly possible that the market for some of his actual paintings could go up," Solon acknowledged. But the possibility, even the likelihood, remains that these buyers are making a long-term mistake if they view their purchases as investments.
Gallery: Thomas Kinkade Paintings
For although Kinkade's work was undeniably popular, and brought him great financial success, it has never commanded the respect of critics or art historians, who tend to view it as saccharine, vulgar and meaningless -- an example of the kind of production that Clement Greenberg once termed kitsch. ("Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas," Greenberg wrote in 1939. "Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. ... Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time.")
But if Kinkade's idealized, luminous representations of cottages, churches and pastoral landscapes were dismissed by the art world cognoscenti, the phenomenon of the artist himself was not, as the NYU panel discussion in which Solon participated suggests. "It was very spirited," she recalls, "because we were talking about whether or not this is a guy who belongs in the canon of art history." Some scholars have taken this possibility seriously: In 2004, the gallery at California State University, Fullerton, mounted a huge exhibition of Kinkade's paintings called Heaven on Earth, as a kind of conceptual project.
Still, the show seems like a one-time novelty, predicated on an almost ironic appreciation of Kinkade's contribution to American art. At the moment, posterity seems likely to vindicate the judgment offered by essayist A.S. Hamrah in the literary magazine The Baffler: "The idea that these reproductions, gobbed with points of light, are a good investment isn't any different than the idea that flipping gated, golf-coursed mansions is the way to get rich."