Friday, April 11, 2014

WAS American Artist, Thomas Kincade, "The Painter of Light" A Good Artist?

Thomas Kincade
You know how once in awhile, one of those sites you signed up for and then ignore suddenly comes up with a real zinger? I was hitting the delete button the other day when I spotted the question posed above on, one of those sites that I still can't actually get a handle on. THAT question though did get my attention.

I can remember when the Kincade phenomena started back in the 90's. Kincade seemed to do with art what Garth Brooks did to Country Music. They merchandised it and made fortunes doing it! NASCAR did the same thing as have all the major sports.

The consensus of the replies on Quora was that he was not much of an artist by any critical standards but that he was a brilliant businessman. Well, that was true until he wasn't. He had huge bills and the lawsuits were piling up.

Kincade made a fortune by marketing his work, extraordinarily well, by making art that his audience liked and by appealing to their sense that most art out there today was elitist. First off, his art is sentimental kitsch. Kincade famously called himself the "Painter of Light," but as other critics have pointed out, his technical ability to depict light is sorely lacking or ignored. As an artist who imitated the effects of Impressionism, at some point to extremes, his paintings lack the challenging use of color and form that characterizes Impressionists that made their art such a breakthrough. It is noted as well that he doesn't demonstrate careful observation of nature either. You would never mistake a Kincade for a Monet. He was, as a friend points out, a powder room artist.

In many ways, Kincade was an Andy Warhol figure without Warhol's irony. Kincade however, was a savvy marketer and got people to open galleries of his prints, charge outrageous prices for them and found an audience that was willing to pay. It all goes to show that people love art, but what that art may be, is not what the critics like. As I pointed out earlier, it was the public not the critics who loved the 1913 Armory Show. Kincade's saccharine scenes remind me of the drivel that covers the walls in just about every hotel and motel in America...or for that matter Europe as well.

He literally gave his audience what they wanted...again and again. I can remember one couple interviewed on "60 Minutes" who had over 130 of his pieces. Can you imagine? 130 prints of those images? They didn't want to be challenged artistically, they wanted to feel comfortable and good.

The Hay-Wein by John Constable
Kincade understood that. He never challenges, instead he conjures up a world that never existed, in another time thought to be simpler, more harmonious, peaceful. The challenges of the real world today, even for the simplest job is in many ways far more complex that most jobs were even 20 years ago. Kincade came along at the right time with the right product and made a fortune. Is there anything then wrong with his art? No, not really. But we cannot, should not hold it up as one of the standards of good art either.

It is interesting to consider another "painter of light," most notably John Constanble who is credited with creating the modern landscape back in 1750's England. There is no doubt that Constable knew how to use light and he used it to full advantage. It is interesting to note though that there are similar elements in both of these artists. While Constable was recording life as he both saw and lived it, looking at these scenes 200 plus years later we find they reflect a totally different time and place, one where there wasn't all news all the time. Things were unhurried and compared to today, leisurely. Yet, would we really want to live there and then? REALLY? Where disease and filth were the standards of the day? Manure and garbage covered the streets, and a simple cold could mean a quick death.

The difference, more than anything else was that Constable recorded what he saw, presenting it in the best light possible. Kincade uses these same elements to appeal to another time. Constable wasn't pandering, Kincade was. He understood what his audience wanted and it wasn't the end of the 20th Century, it was somewhere in an unadorned and bucolic mid 18th Century.

New York, Central Park at Sixth Avenue by Thomas Kincade
Was his art always this way? Heavens no. His early, struggling years produced some wonderful art, art that has not been tainted yet by nostalgia and lack of discernment. Somewhere along this road he hit upon his style, found a audience that was willing to pay and capitalized on it.

One of the most fascinating things though about his art, is that he never sold the originals. Ever. Everything he sold was a print or a giclee of the original. Are the originals worth anything? We may never know. His galleries however continue to sell his prints and critics are finally taking a closer look at his early, very impressionistic works. (See his view of New York City, left, before the kitsch period) He wasn't bad and in some cases his art is both touching yet remains challenging and intriguing in ways the works he is known for aren't.

Ultimately what someone thinks of art, or his art, is really "in the eyes of the beholder." Kincade knew this and marketed it well, very well!

I urge you to Google Kincade's early work and look at his early years. He was growing as an artist producing works that could rival many of his contemporaries. If anything, you will be like me, sorry for what could have been!

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