What's So Bad About Thomas Kinkade?
It’s my duty, every so often, to make fun of Thomas Kinkade, the self-styled “Painter of Light.”
One reader of a past post commented, “I like to think of Kinkade as ‘Painter of outdoor mood lighting emanating from no intelligible source and obeying no discernible laws of physics or common sense.’”
A Kinkade fan responded: “I’m biting my tongue right now, thinking of Christian iconography…”
He thought he had made a telling point—and actually he had, by reminding us to talk about light. Here’s some of that Christian iconography:
Is there “no intelligible source” of light in these pictures? Of course not. The source is quite explicitly God Himself.
The first thing that God created was light. Light is goodness (providing warmth, comfort, and safety), truth (revealing things that would hide in the dark), and, of course, beauty (see the last several thousand years of art in every culture).
When artists show holy people as brilliant and glowing, or wearing halos, they are showing that it is God who resides in them. Halos are not some kind of name tag explaining, “Hi, my name is HOLY.” No, they are meant to remind us of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of goodness, truth, and beauty. It’s not about mood or atmosphere—it’s about what is really happening on a metaphysical level. It’s about the Incarnation: Christ our Light is in the world.
Where there is God, there is light: think of the pillar of light in the desert, the dazzling face of Moses when he descended from the holy mountain, the darkness at noon when Christ died, the Easter candle with its multiplying flame, Mary clothed with the sun, and on and on.
This light is not always pretty. In this Caravaggio
a rather pained Judith does God’s work as she hacks off the head of the evil Holofernes. Now look at the force and the energy of the painting—look at the source of light. She’s leaning away from what she’s doing. Even the drapery flows away from the focal point, as if to let something unseen through. The motion, and the light, are flowing not from Judith and her sword, but from above. This is not a coincidence: this is a statement.
Such depictions of light “obey no discernible laws of physics or common sense” because the source of the light is the One who designed the laws of physics.
They don’t follow common sense because they reveal something uncommon—something otherworldly—something supernatural (literally, beyond what is natural). The light tells you, “something very unusual is going on here!” That’s not a flaw in the composition, it’s the point of the whole painting. If you follow the source of the light, you will find out where the artist thinks God is.
Now, not all good art is religious—not by a long shot! But the same rule applies: light emanates from what is meaningful.
An artist is someone in love, or at least inextricably entangled, with the world; and so the object of his fascination often takes on a glow or radiance:
The artist wants to show the viewer how lovely, or at least how lively, is this orange or onion or weed or house . . . and so it glows.
But that is not what Thomas Kinkade is doing.
His paintings are intended to show an idealized version of the world. He never shows anything ugly, and he never shows anything unadorned. There is nothing wrong with this, and I fully understand that people need something beautiful to look at, especially if they are surrounded by ugliness in real life. Beauty is a true and necessary refuge.
But again, let’s look at that light. Let’s consider its source.
By showing light in the form of exaggerated highlights, fuzzy halos, and a hyperluminescent shine on everything, regardless of where they are in the composition, he isn’t revealing the true nature of—anything. It’s a bafflingly incoherent mish-mosh of light: an orange sunset here, a pearly mid-morning sheen there, a crystal-clear reflection in one spot, a hazy mist in the other—all impossibly coexisting in the same scene. This picture:
makes sense only as a depiction of an oncoming storm, with heavy smog in some spots and total visibility just inches away (blown by what wind, when the chimney smoke rises undisturbed?), several cordless Klieg lights, possibly a partial eclipse, and that most cheerful of pastoral daydreams: a robust house fire. This is a lovely fantasy in the same way as it makes lovely music when all of your favorite instruments play as loudly as they can at the same time. Listen, and go mad.
Where is the source of light? This isn’t just clumsy execution, this is an artist who cannot see—who knows nothing at all about light, what it is for, or whence it comes. (Or, more frightfully, an accomplished artist who has discovered that it’s much more lucrative to quash his understanding of these things.)
Kinkade isn’t content with shying away from ugliness: He sees nothing beautiful in the world the way it is. He thinks it needs polishing. He loves the world in the same way that a pageant mom thinks her child is just adorable—or will be, after she loses ten pounds, dyes and curls her hair, gets implants, and makes herself almost unrecognizable with a thick layer of make-up. Normal people recoil from such extreme artifice—not because they hate beauty, but because they love it.
Kinkade-style light doesn’t show an affection for natural beauty—it shows his disdain for it. His light doesn’t reveal, it distorts. His paintings aren’t merely trivial, they’re a statement of contempt for the world.
His vision of the world isn’t just tacky, it’s anti-Incarnational.
Kinkade: Stepping Stone Cottage
Geertgen: Nativity at Night
Cézanne still life
Vermeer: Girl With a Pearl Earring (detail)
Caravaggio: Judith Beheading Holofernes
Kinkade: Candlelight Cottage