Thomas Kinkade, known as the “Painter of Light,” is one of the most popular American artists of the 21st century. His mass-marketed prints of cozy cottages, bright gardens, inviting cabins, and homey small towns continue to resonate with the regular Joes who purchase and collect his art. Kinkade had a cheerful public persona and presented himself as a devout Christian with the perfect family and life, but in her documentary “Art for Everybody,” director Miranda Yousef uncovers a far darker truth about a tortured addict who died from an overdose at the age of 54. After you learn about the real Thomas Kinkade, you’ll never look at his art the same way again.
The documentary begins with a look at the artist’s early life, but mainly focuses on his career and oft-maligned style. His kitsch has been ridiculed by the serious critics (who have frequently and loudly declared his pieces “bad art”), which has made Kinkade’s works even more appealing to those outside of the established, elitist art world. His art hangs in the living rooms of rural America instead of museums, and the cultural impact Kinkade has had on normal people is impressive. But how did he make himself relevant to the ordinary everyman?
Yousef looks at Kinkade’s masterful understanding of marketing, as he was a whiz and a grassroots entrepreneur. Regardless of your feelings on his artistic talent and merit, you have to respect his hustle. Kinkade was an ingenious marketer who sold his personal image as well as his work, often playing into the hands of Evangelical Christians by including religious imagery in his paintings. He made it affordable for everyone to collect works of art and as an art lover himself, Kinkade wanted to make his pieces accessible to anyone and everyone. This gave him the idea to produce limited edition prints and sell them at modest prices. This strategy of creating his own art brand was something he exploited brilliantly, as he took away the intimidation factor that often comes with purchasing and collecting art.
To this day, that is why you will often see Kinkade’s imagery on everything from greeting cards, coffee mugs, jigsaw puzzles, and tote bags to pet collars, nightlights, calendars, and ceramic plates. During the height of his popularity in the 1990s, there were even Thomas Kinkade stores in malls across the U.S. that were staffed by a highly personable sales force comprised of normal folks like teachers and homemakers. It was the first snob-free art zone, and the down-home feel of the staff and the ability for customers to hear firsthand the personal stories behind Kinkade’s art made the items fly off the shelves. Almost everything about the marketing reached the height of absolute genius.
The film goes to darker places too, including scandals involving his business manager, claims of fraud, and bankruptcy. Yousef takes a look at the secret paintings discovered by Kinkade’s daughters after his death, which were locked away for years in their father’s office. The works are very dark and disturbing, a far cry from his idyllic bestsellers that featured pastel colors and pastoral settings. By interviewing his family and friends, Yousef paints a haunting portrait of an artist who battled demons his entire life, from his secret alcohol addiction and unsuccessful stint in rehab to his massive ego and hair-trigger temper.
When it comes to collecting art, it has never seemed to matter that Kinkade’s works are far from challenging. They are, objectively, nostalgic and dull. Even after having his entire portfolio ripped apart by contemporary critics, Kinkade still embraced them. This is what makes the man even more compelling: he was said to love art critics because their bad reviews were good for his business. He would take every negative critique and spin it in a way that made the professionals seem elitist while he was down to Earth. “Art for Everybody” captures the true essence of a very complicated man.
By: Louisa Moore