A Case Study in
Critics who deign to comment
on the titanically successful painter Thomas Kinkade
usually call him a kitschmeister. But his
case is not that simple.
SF Chronicle Art Critic. DATEBOOK, Feb. 4,
Kinkade's marketing techniques
selling editioned reproductions online and in devoted
galleries around the country -- make it easy to
generalize about what he produces. Yet no one ever
bears down critically on an individual Kinkade picture.
The Chronicle decided this exercise was
Unfortunately, the Thomas Kinkade Gallery in San
Francisco did not have an originaI canvas on hand.
Autograph works are scarce and pricey, though every
image the gallery brokers derives from a Kinkade oil. A
high-grade facsimile would have to serve. Sparsely
highlighted by an apprentice, it reproduces the surface
texture of a Kinkade original titled "The Mountains
Declare His Glory." Kinkade's sappiest imagery -
the fire-lit gingerbread cottages, the high-spired
churches in glades - are just too ripe a target.
Half of Kinkade's critics dismiss him because of the
false sentiment typical of everything he produces.
Those who believe that false feeling in the arts drives
out the true can with some justice accuse him of
purveying kitsch. For kitsch was once thought to act
like cultural kudzu, corrupting the sensibilities of
an audience that authentic expression needs to
But that notion seems dated now that the high and
popular arts, mass and elite audiences, originals and
reproductions, even art media themselves, are all mixed
up. We cannot tell how far from Kinkade's hand - never
mind his heart - a given image of "The Mountains ..."
stands. But in this respect, too, Kinkade may merely
be an artist of his time, the post-Warhol era.
The copy of "The Mountains ..." that I saw mimics
landscape painting in the style of William Keith
(1839-1911) or Thomas Hill (1829-1908) and attests that
a capable realist originally rendered its glowing sky.
The technical licks grow more formulaic toward the
foreground. The touches of oil paint on the
reproduction - which jack up its price - refuse to
merge with the image. They cling to the mountain slopes
and a few tree trunks as gelatinous afterthoughts.
Critics are less likely to knock such cosmetic
additions than they are Kinkade's lack of irony, his
pretense to partake of the false sentiments he
concocts. Kinkade, they say, lays claim to a sincerity
impossible in today's cultural climate. "After
completing my recent plein air study of 'Yosemite
Valley,' " Kinkade writes, "the mountains' majesty
refused to leave me."
"When my family wandered through the national park
visitor center, I discovered a key to my fantasy - a
re-creation of a Miwok Indian village. When I returned
to my studio, I began work on 'The Mountains Declare
His Glory,' a poetic expression of what I felt in that
transforming moment of inspiration. I even added a
Miwok Indian Camp along the river as an affirmation
that man has his place even in a setting touched by
God's glory." Even without his promptings, any viewer
can sense the picture's agenda: to stir religious
(read Christian) awe and ecological nostalgia.
Painting styles such as Keith's realism have their day
and then - for reasons we may never fully understand
lose their power to embody illuminating responses to
It may be, as many contemporary artists argue, that no
way of painting can adequately express our
consciousness of the world. But Kinkade's use of
painting can evoke only a refusal to be conscious of
the world we now endure. Granted that Kinkade
describes his image as a "fantasy," his use of a Miwok
camp as a symbol of human reconciliation to the divine
order of nature is especially tasteless. Anyone who
would enjoy "The Mountains ..." as Kinkade intended
must erase from memory the whole history of continental
conquest, or never have had it in the first place.
Kinkade's products have a consistent message: that if
we want the feeIing of living in a conflict-free world,
we can buy it. The cost - as distinct from the
price - of this feeling is mere denial of all one's
experience of citizenship, of human relations, of
THOMAS KINKADE: A Case
Study in Kitsch.
By Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle Art
Critic. DATEBOOK, Feb. 4, 2001.
E-mail Kenneth Baker at email@example.com