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How much value does the art of Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light, really have? A critic explains

The death of Thomas Kinkade on April 6 at age 54 presents an opportunity for art critics to do what they never would when he was alive: give him some press. There has probably never been an artist so successful in his lifetime who was so singularly ignored by those who write about art.

The consensus seems to be that his work was so literal and saccharine, his approach so blatantly commercial, that Kinkade was beneath critical consideration. By extension, the people who bought his work were tasteless saps. One news source used the word "middlebrow" to describe his fans.

I have never written about the artist primarily because there has never been an exhibition of his work in the regional museums I cover. Though I also cover art galleries and some do sell his work, everything is a reproduction, which doesn't meet my criteria for reviewing art.

I would never criticize Kinkade for the multimillions of dollars he made or for his ubiquity on the walls of tens of thousands of homes across America.

My job as a critic is to judge art. I don't judge the people who buy it. I believe one of my most important jobs is to provide tools for people to assess art intelligently. I don't expect everyone to share my tastes and opinions. It's fine by me if someone doesn't like something. I only ask that viewers try to appreciate what they're seeing and understand why they do or don't like it. Appreciating a work and liking it are different responses. Love isn't rational. I wrote a column a while back about my favorite paintings in Tampa Bay area museums. Not one would be considered the best in those collections.

So my quarrel with Thomas Kinkade, the trademarked "Painter of Light," isn't that he created images that resonated deeply with a wide swath of the population and irritated the entire art world. Or that he marketed mugs and stationery.

I fault him for creating an illusion about what he was selling that rivaled what he committed to canvas.

According to many reports, never denied by the artist, Kinkade stopped selling his original paintings years ago. A few come onto what's called the secondary market occasionally and sell in the six figures.

What you can readily buy are copies of those originals, printed on paper or canvas. If you buy one of the less expensive ones, matted and framed, for about $700, you're essentially getting a nice poster with an auto-penned signature.

The cost of these copies can rise to more than $50,000. For that you get a much smaller production run, a few flourishes of real paint applied in some places (not by Kinkade) and a signature (by Kinkade). Plus a higher quality frame.

I have no problem with any of that. I, for example, could never afford a limited edition, gelatin silver print of a Clyde Butcher photograph that goes for several thousand dollars. What I have instead is one of his no-limits poster editions, which I bought for $25, then paid another $150 to have framed and matted. It looks great. It's worth very little.

I fear people think their Kinkade prints are worth something, at least what they paid for them. I have read stories about some of the more expensive prints, now out of gallery circulation, appreciating. In general, though, every expert and many Kinkade gallery owners agree that his art has reached saturation point. The only way the prints could become rarities is if some cataclysm destroyed most of Western art and, as with ancient antiquities, a few survived.

As time passes and tastes change — and they always do — the technical virtues of art no longer new become much more important to collectors. Consider William Bouguereau, a 19th century artist who couldn't paint fast enough for millionaire collectors lined up to buy his work. He was probably the most famous artist in the world. Edgar Degas, a not nearly so successful contemporary, despised the sentimentality and slickness of Bouguereau's work. Degas, of course, eventually won the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of art lovers and Bouguereau slipped into obscurity for almost a century. His paintings were considered too kitschy.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately for the great-great-grandchildren who inherited paintings that got no professional respect for years, Bouguereau has had a renaissance. Not because of his subject matter — still a little questionable for many people — but because of his technical prowess.

Whatever you think of his themes, Kinkade was a skilled painter.

There is no technical prowess in a Kinkade print. A true fine art print is meant to stand on its own aesthetically; it isn't an affordable version of a painting. Each print in a (truly) limited edition is supposed to be a little different. They're hand-pulled by a master printer. Kinkade prints are manufactured, their identicality to each other marketed as a virtue.

There has been a flurry to buy work by Kinkade in recent days. The hope, I'm sure, is that his work will appreciate now that he won't be creating any more. His original paintings will likely rise in value. Don't count on the reproductions. And don't assume that more prints won't be made post-mortem. It has been done before.

Buy art because you like it. But know what you're buying. Thomas Kinkade knew exactly what he was selling.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

How much value does the art of Thomas Kinkade, the Painter of Light, really have? A critic explains 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 4:30am]

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