SAN FRANCISCO — To fans and the countless collectors who helped build painter Thomas Kinkade's commercial art empire, his idealized vision of the world usually served as a simple, soothing addition to the living room wall: a soft depiction of a churning seascape or a colorful garden or a cottage brimming with warm light.
Kinkade's vision, and the artworks he prolifically created from it, paid off handsomely for the self-described "painter of light," whose business grew into franchised galleries, reproduced artwork and spin-off products said to fetch at their peak some $100 million annually and adorn roughly 10 million homes.
Kinkade, who died Friday in Los Gatos, Calif., at age 54, embraced his popularity even as he drew less than appreciative attention from those within the art establishment who derided him, at least in part, for appealing so brazenly to the widest possible audience.
"In their minds, he represented the lowest type of art," said Jeffrey Vallance, an artist who hosted a show of Kinkade's artwork in Santa Ana, Calif. in 2004. "He was different from other artists. You kind of felt like he was giving people what they wanted."
Kinkade's art empire included reproductions of his numerous paintings in hand-signed lithographs, canvas prints, books and posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines. As his art drew wider and wider attention, Kinkade didn't shy away.
"It is clear that everyday people need an art they can enjoy, believe in and understand," he wrote in a catalog to the 2004 show.
For Kinkade, such art meant light-infused renderings of tranquil landscape scenes, homes and churches that evoked an idealized past, some of which included religious iconography.
As word of Kinkade's untimely death spread Saturday, fans flocked to some galleries to buy his work.
"It's crazy beautiful. We're struggling with our own emotions, yet the public is coming in and just buying art off the wall," said Ester Wells, gallery director at the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery in Pismo Beach, Calif. "Right now, people are just coming in and buying everything in our inventory."
Many customers bought art as a tribute while others said it was a smart investment: they feel his work will now be worth more down the road, Wells said. Others stopped by just to say how sorry they were to hear of his death.
"We're going to lose a great artist to the world but we'll never forget him," Wells said, adding that she thinks Kinkade will be remembered as another Norman Rockwell
Kinkade regarded Rockwell as his earliest hero. His mom had a big collection of copies of Saturday Evening Post magazines, he said in a biography on his website.
"The scenes were nostalgic and brought back very happy memories for people," said Marty Brown, who owns four galleries in Southern California that sell Kinkade paintings. Brown's galleries had already had a record sales day by noon on Saturday, he said.
The customers ranged from curious people who'd seen news of Kinkade's death on the news to longtime collectors purchasing a few more pieces.
"Some people are coming and buying a couple or buying their first piece, or just buying something. But they all feel pretty bad, to tell you the truth," he said.
Kinkade had a fan base that was unprecedented, and he made collectors out of the many people who brought his art into their homes.
"That's market penetration that we've never seen in art, for sure," Brown said.
Yet some of the qualities that made Kinkade's art popular and accessible to everyday consumers also led to its criticism from art experts.
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