Thomas Kinkade

The Drunken Downfall of Evangelical America's Favorite Painter

Thomas Kinkade’s death shocked his legions of fans—not only had the Painter of Light died at 54, but the cause was alcohol and Valium. How did the evangelical darling fall so far?

06.08.14 4:00 AM ET

The Painter of Light was pissed off.

It was November 20, 2010, less than two years before he died, and Thomas Kinkade was at the Denver Broncos’ stadium to unveil Mile High Thunder, his painting for the Tim Tebow Foundation. At 52, he was America’s most popular—and the art establishment’s most hated—living artist. Esteemed art critic Jerry Saltz once wrote that “Kinkade's paintings are worthless schmaltz, and the lamestream media that love him are wrong.” But to his fans, Kinkade was everything.

Evangelical Christians snapped up his bucolic garden scenes and cozy cottages with windows that glowed so much they seemed, as Joan Didion once wrote, “as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.” Kinkade painted “John 3:16,” along with the sign of the fish, the traditional Christian symbol for Jesus, in the signature of each of his sentimental works that now hang in around 20 million homes globally. He also published books and calendars that paired his paintings with verses from the Bible or inspirational aphorisms attributed to the artist himself: “The best things in life are yours for the choosing”; “Creativity has everything to do with the way you live”; “Your life has meaning and beauty, and you are not alone.”

Fans in Denver had been promised “a 30 minute inspirational presentation.” But what they got was an un-groomed, underdressed speaker who was none too pleased with the media’s coverage of his recent arrest for drunk driving.

“I sneeze in public, and I make a headline,” he sneered. 

Then he complained about the media’s lack of attention to his charitable works: “America's most-known, most-beloved artist shows up at Orange County Hospital. We threw an all-day kids event, we hosted art contests, we gave art packages to all the kids…I talked to them about journaling their life, about creating something every day that makes a statement…and we sent word out to every newspaper: ‘Come down! See this day of joy! This day of celebration!’ No one showed.  But make one wrong step in public and they put it on the front page.”

When he was finished, Kinkade asked the organizers to make sure that his hotel room was alcohol-free, and then he kept the owner of Colorado’s Kinkade gallery up late into the night reminiscing about his pre-estrangement life with Nanette, his wife of 30 years. In happier times, they’d written The Many Loves of Marriage together, and Kinkade was still hiding “N’s” in his paintings as a tribute to her, even though they’d been separated for close to a year. “I was in my Carmel house, just medicated with alcohol,” he’d told a longtime friend of the weeks following the split.

A month after the event, Kinkade was sentenced to 10 days in jail on the DUI charge. Sixteen months later, he was found unconscious and spent days in a coma. Doctors told him that if he didn’t get help, he would die. And two months after that, he did— on April 6, 2012, at the age of 54.

The family released a statement attributing his death to natural causes, and fans gathered at the 50 or so independently-owned Thomas Kinkade galleries nationwide to celebrate his career. Sales skyrocketed. Marty Brown, who owns a gallery in Lake Forest, California, said he sold a million dollars’ worth of Kinkade product in the two months following the artist’s death—about five times as much as he’d sold in the entire previous year.

Then the autopsy came.

Kinkade had died of “acute ethanol and diazepam intoxication”—alcohol and Valium. Drinking had also led to a slew of chronic ailments: hypertension, an enlarged heart and fatty liver, along with numerous blunt force injuries probably caused by frequent drunken falls. His toenails had been painted a glittery gold color, and there was also green paint under his fingernails. 

Grieving over his death quickly gave way to a highly public legal war between his widow, Nanette, and his girlfriend, Amy Pinto-Walsh. Pinto-Walsh produced letters written in Kinkade’s blurry, alcohol-fueled scrawl that promised her his home, his paintings, and $10 million to establish a museum of his works. The estate requested a gag order to prevent Pinto-Walsh from releasing photos and information damaging to the Painter of Light’s brand, and the matter was quickly settled out of court. 

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But the damage was done: Thomas Kinkade, America’s most inspirational painter, had been exposed in death as a man who had lived a life wildly at odds with the values he espoused. Kinkade’s wife and children had inherited his business, but the company’s value was an extremely open question. Driving to work on her first day back in the office,Kristen Barthelman, the Thomas Kinkade Co.’s head of licensing, was worried. “I did not have any sense of optimism,” she remembers. The company’s revenues depended on licensing deals with companies like Disney and Hallmark, and Edstrom wondered whether they’d stay with the brand given the headlines swirling about Kinkade’s life. Then there was the question of the painter’s fans: Would his mostly conservative following stay loyal, or would the degeneracy of Kinkade’s last years mean the end of the art empire that had been his American Dream?

* * * *

Before Thomas Kinkade was evangelical America’s favorite painter or 2012’s most high-profile case study on the dangers of alcohol abuse, he was a poor kid with a single mom in Placerville, California—a Rockwell-esque town, population 10,000, 40 miles east of Sacramento. Kinkade and his brother, Dr. Patrick Kinkade, now the head of the criminal justice department at Texas Christian University, called their home “the slum of Placerville.” Patrick remembers the tubs of peanut butter stamped “Property of El Dorado County” that their mother told them were gifts from a friend. But he also remembers the sense of optimism she provided. When the pre-teen boys returned home from school to find their furniture repossessed, she told them she’d gotten rid of it because she thought it would be more fun to “camp out” in their house. They believed her, and thought she was the coolest mom ever.

Their interactions with their father, an alcoholic who scraped by with odd jobs doing janitorial work and driving rental cars between airports, were mostly limited to occasional road trips.

“He was a loveable sad sack,” Patrick remembers. “For a lot of years he was sort of this character in our lives. Thom and I both certainly felt that we were more sophisticated than he was. He’d go off on these tangents, these flights of fancy about what he was going to do with his life—these bouts of expertise that he really had no expertise about. He’d be so into it, and Thom and I would just sit there and smile and nod knowing that all this was nonsense and that my dad really didn’t have the capacity to carry out that plan. He wanted to sail around the Sea of Cortez; he had this weird little boat that in no way was ready nor was he a sailor. He had a hat and a map.”

As an adult, Kinkade blended his father’s grandiosity with his own herculean work ethic and clarity of purpose. He was perpetually broke while he studied at UC Berkeley and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, but he’d still find $400 to drop in a single trip to Moe’s, a popular Berkeley used bookstore. He studied the master painters obsessively but never graduated from either school.

“In art school I was told so many times ‘Your art is all about you,’” he later remembered. “And something about that didn’t sit well with me. I began to realize my art’s not about me, it’s about you. It’s about that other person. It’s about letting something within you pour out in love to other people.”

In the 1980s, Kinkade thought the art world had become detached from the public—and he saw himself as the person to return it to an artist-as-servant model, where painters affirmed rather than challenged social values. His hero was Andy Warhol, who, he felt, had rescued art from insularity and infused it with iconography that meant something to ordinary people; what Warhol did with soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Kinkade thought he could do with Eden-inspired garden scenes and Cotswolds cottages.

A post-college road trip led to the publication of The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, which helped him land work painting backgrounds for an animated movie, 1983’s Fire and Ice. After that, he focused on his own studio pieces—large-scale, Bierstadt-inspired panoramas of the American West that found an audience among California collectors. 

Soon he approached Ken Raasch, a California entrepreneur, with the idea of setting up a printmaking business.  He was already selling $5,000 worth of prints a month, he lied to Raasch (he wasn’t selling any). Though fraudulent inducement does not ordinarily augur well, it worked. With Kinkade’s feel-good paintings and Raasch’s acumen and $35,000 in startup capital, the business took off. 

Kinkade’s charisma made him a live event star, and he was the first limited-edition artist to popularize the idea of highlighting prints—having craftsmen retouch reproductions with oil paints to make them look like originals. He was also among the first to offer the same limited edition print in different sizes. Advisers warned this would make them seem cheap, but instead it increased sales dramatically. And then he came up with the idea for a chain of small, mall-based galleries that sold only his work.

By the mid-1990s, Kinkade had become to the evangelical movement what Peter Max was to the psychedelic Sixties. As American homes expanded in size and contracted in originality, Kinkade’s stated mission was to fill as many of their walls as possible—and in the process, he filled more than anyone else ever had.

“We saw the power of art in a world that was changing,” Raasch explains of their Silicon Valley-based company that was unlike anything else in town. “What we believed in was the power of a still image to bring power and joy into people's lives. We felt that what hung on the walls of people’s homes mattered.”

Kinkade, who referred to his pieces as “silent messengers in the home,” was unapologetic about his almost clinical efforts to make his work uplifting. “Every element in my paintings, from the patch of sun in the foreground to the mists on a distant horizon, is an effort to summon back those perfect moments that hang in our minds as pictures of harmony,” he once wrote in Lightposts for Living. “My deepest desire is that my work will help people aspire to the life those kinds of images evoke.” In more private moments, according to one former employee, he sometimes referred to his paintings as “a 30-second vacation in a double-wide.”

The Thomas Kinkade Co. went public on the NASDAQ in 1994 and moved to the NYSE in 1998. In 2004, Kinkade borrowed money to take it private. A decline in sales, litigation over the failure of many of the independent galleries, and the bankruptcy of a subsidiary followed, but the company survived—and Kinkade remained, by far, America’s best-selling artist with a smaller, but still rabid, fan base.

The company persevered, but Kinkade himself did not fare as well. He controlled his fondness for alcohol and strip clubs adequately when his wife was with him, but things spiraled out of control when he was on the road. By the mid-2000s, Kinkade’s family was pushing him into inpatient rehab as stories about his alcoholism started to make the news. The last five years of his life were characterized by the pattern of ups and downs familiar to many addicts.

“Thom believed that he should be able to control it, and that contributed to his downfall,” his brother remembers. “He had six months of sobriety and he was doing all these wonderful things. He was calling me and telling me: ‘Feeling good! Losing weight! Doing great!’ And then suddenly, you get a message: ‘Thom’s had a beer.’ Two days later, he’s into vodka. Seven days later, he’d dead.”

* * * *

With the passing of the Painter of Light, Patrick was thrust into the role of family spokesman, even as he struggled with his own grief. The company and its galleries had always depended on Thomas’s live events to drive sales, and now that job falls to Patrick, who tours the country to carry on the Kinkade name and spread its message of affirmation through art. He also makes regular appearances on ShopNBC.

In July of 2013, Patrick went to Cañon City Colorado to speak at one of the first exhibitions of his brother’s original paintings in decades. The Fremont Center for the Arts, a small museum located in what was once the town’s post office, had called the painter in February 2010 to see about setting up an exhibition. To their surprise, Kinkade had readily agreed. The drama surrounding the painter’s death had delayed things, but three-and-a-half years later, 10 Thomas Kinkade original works, along with Patrick Kinkade, arrived at the museum. Demand for Patrick’s presentation was too large to be contained by the museum, and so the overflowing crowd gathered in what was once the Sunflower Bank on Main Street, surrounded by white plastic electric fans.

What Patrick presented was The Legacy Tour—a retrospective of his brother’s life and career that Thom had suggested in one of the midnight phone calls that accompanied his marathon painting sessions.

The presentation Patrick gave that day was an often funny (Patrick refers to himself as “The Brother of Light” and “the Billy Carter of the art world”) and always sentimental romp through Kinkade’s career; there were baby pictures, photos of the go-kart they made together, and examples of his brother’s masterfully executed Norman Rockwell pastiches from his art school days.  He showed pieces by Rembrandt and Bierstadt followed by Kinkade’s works to trace the artistic influence, and he talked about the dog in Kinkade’s popular 1995 piece “Hometown Memories I: Walking to Church on a Rain Sunday Evening.”

That painting was based on the homes the brothers delivered papers to as children, and Patrick pointed to a cute dog in the foreground. While Thom was working on the piece, he called his brother and described the scene. “I’m painting Spotty,” he said.

Spotty had been a neighborhood menace. “That dog looks like a Dalmatian. It’s not. It’s half-Dalmatian, and half-Doberman,” Patrick explained, pointing at the piece in his PowerPoint. “Dalmatians are a little bit hyper. Dobermans are a little aggressive. Put em’ together, what do you get? Hyper-aggressive.”

“Why are you doing that?” Patrick had asked the painter. “We hated that dog.”

“To taunt you,” his brother replied. But in the painting, because this is a Thomas Kinkade piece, Spotty looks like a sweet little Dalmatian. “Thom was a romantic,” Patrick said. 

Most of the hour was devoted to these sentimental stories steeped in Americana, Kinkade’s Horatio Alger rise from poverty, and a rousing defense of Kinkade as a great artist misunderstood by critics. Only at the very end did Patrick discuss the fact that his brother is no longer alive.

“My brother was a good man,” he said, pausing as he choked up along with much of the mostly middle-aged and older audience. “The tragedy of my brother is he eventually fell to his own humanity. The triumph of my brother is that his art was never touched by that tragedy. His art was affirmation that there was hope, there was beauty, and a statement of love that wasn't touched by this."

* * * *

ShopNBC’s sales of Kinkade products have risen in the two years since his death, with inspirational pieces like “Walk of Faith,” “Conquering the Storms,” and “A Peaceful Time” leading the way. After a natural slowdown following the postmortem craze, most Kinkade galleries report that their sales are a little higher than before his death. Not one of the company’s licensing partners ended its involvement with the brand following Kinkade’s death. They’ve been rewarded: Andrews McMeel Publishing says that sales of its Kinkade calendars rose 12 percent in 2012 and held that pace of sales last year. Hallmark has also seen double-digit growth, and Kinkade remains the top-selling painter of Disney images. The May 2014 issue of Global License! places Kinkade at #81 on its list of bestselling licensed brands, with $425 million in annual sales—ahead of CBS Consumer Products, National Geographic, and The Trump Organization.

In the weeks following Kinkade’s death, his estate tried to protect his brand: The gag order on his mistress and a statement attributing his death to natural causes were among the efforts they made to prevent the public from learning about the seedier side of Kinkade’s life. They didn’t work—but it didn’t matter. Kinkade’s fans have proven that they are willing to overlook his weaknesses because his paintings symbolize the values they aspire to. “I like to portray a world without the fall,” he once said. And just as Spotty, the neighborhood menace of Thomas Kinkade’s childhood, found new life as a cute Dalmatian in Hometown Memories, Kinkade’s fans remember him as they wish to. Many Thomas Kinkade collectors keep a photo of the painter in their living rooms, surrounded by his prints that have been mocked by every serious art critic of the past 15 years.

The people who love Kinkade’s work will have plenty more to buy. When he began publishing in the late 1980s, he stopped selling his original pieces—storing them instead in a vault in northern California so that, when his singular vision was one day recognized by critics, students would be able to see the trajectory of his career as a continuous progression. A longtime friend describes him as “completely lacking in self-doubt,” and Kinkade once “bet” Susan Orlean, who was writing a profile of him, $1 million that there would be a major museum retrospective of his work during his lifetime. The vault contains paintings from Kinkade’s childhood and college years on through the end of his life—thousands of pieces in various stages of completion. Last year, his widow and his brother pulled 150 of them for posthumous publication, with a plan to release eight to 10 per year. (The most recent release is May’s Lovelight Cottage).

“His legacy in terms of new publications,” Patrick says, “will far outlive anybody who reads this article.”