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Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall

Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall

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by Alexis L. Boylan (Editor), David Morgan (Contribution by), Micki McElya (Contribution by), Seth Feman (Contribution by), Karal Ann Marling (Contribution by)

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Often featuring lighthouses, bridges, or quaint country homes, Thomas Kinkade’s soft-focus landscapes have permeated American visual culture during the past twenty years, appearing on everything from Bibles to bedsheets to credit cards. Kinkade sells his work through his shopping-mall galleries, QVC, the Internet, and Christian stores. He is quite possibly


Often featuring lighthouses, bridges, or quaint country homes, Thomas Kinkade’s soft-focus landscapes have permeated American visual culture during the past twenty years, appearing on everything from Bibles to bedsheets to credit cards. Kinkade sells his work through his shopping-mall galleries, QVC, the Internet, and Christian stores. He is quite possibly the most collected artist in the United States. While many art-world and academic critics have dismissed him as a passing fad or marketing phenomenon, the contributors to this collection do not. Instead, they explore his work and its impact on contemporary art as part of the broader history of American visual culture. They consider Kinkade’s imagery and career in relation to nineteenth-century Currier and Ives prints and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the collectibles market and the fine-art market, the Thomas Kinkade Museum and Cultural Center, and “The Village at Hiddenbrooke,” a California housing development inspired by Kinkade’s paintings. The conceptual artist Jeffrey Vallance, curator of the first major museum exhibition of Kinkade’s art and collectibles, recounts his experiences organizing that show. All of the contributors draw on art history, visual culture, and cultural studies as they seek to understand Kinkade’s significance for both art and audiences. Along the way, they delve into questions about beauty, class, kitsch, religion, and taste in contemporary art.

Contributors. Julia Alderson, Alexis L. Boylan , Anna Brzyski, Seth Feman, Monica Kjellman-Chapin, Micki McElya, Karal Ann Marling, David Morgan, Christopher Pearson, Andrea Wolk Rager, Jeffrey Vallance

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Boylan (art history, Univ. of Connecticut) presents a surprisingly evenhanded and at times typically dense academic analysis of the cultural manifestation that is Thomas Kinkade, self-described "painter of light" and artistic merchandiser of paintings, prints, cups, mugs, and real-estate developments par excellence. In her introduction Boylan makes a cogent case for serious study of Kinkade and his meaning in the wider cultural context. Essays by a group of academic authors treat Kinkade's retail successes and failures, his political and religious views, and his adoption by politicians who share them. Analysis of the art as art is minimal; the social and emotional meaning is the message here. VERDICT Although serious and informative in many ways, the essays will not appeal to purchasers of Kinkade's many offerings but are aimed at other academics in the field. The modest illustrations were seen by this reviewer only in proof, and the price differential for the hardcover appears unjustified for an octavo volume. For advanced academic collections only.—Jack Perry Brown, Art Inst. of Chicago Libs.
From the Publisher
“At last, a thoughtful book on Thomas Kinkade. This is much more than a case of visual studies replacing art history with social and economic analyses: the contributors wrestle with value, quality, irony, self-reflexivity, aesthetics, taste, complexity, class, religion, nostalgia, and kitsch. Despite what several authors argue or hope, this excellent book implies Kinkade is very much a part of contemporary fine art: he troubles the discourses of art history, art theory, and visual studies in just the way an exemplary artist should.”—James Elkins, author of On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art

“This excellent anthology is a significant contribution to scholarship at the interstices of art practice, art theory, and popular culture. It is an erudite book that brings together diverse approaches to Thomas Kinkade’s work and ‘culture,’ yet maintains a surprisingly even quality of thought and writing.”—Maria Elena Buszek, author of Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture

AHAA Reviews - Michael Clapper
“[A] wide-ranging, incisive interpretation of one of the most popular yet polarizing artists of our time. Whatever you may know or think about Kinkade, this book will press you to consider his work and the significance of its popularity in new ways.”
Artforum - Joachim Pissarro and David Carrier
“Edited by art historian Alexis L. Boylan and published by a major university press, this book challenges Kinkade’s exclusion from the art world’s rarefied discourses. In so doing, it surely counts as something of an event. . . . Perhaps the primary benefit of this book lies in the skill with which it teases out the vagaries of the art world’s love-hate affair with its own significant Other: mass culture.”
Visual Studies - Judith R. Halasz
“This collection illuminates controversial currents in the contemporary art world and consumer culture. Though focused on a single artist, the debates over what constitutes art in a postmodern world, where art ends and commerce begins, the ubiquity of branding and marketing; and the social politics of cultural production and consumption transcend Kinkade’s work and can be used to analyse other developments in contemporary society.”
Choice - E. K. Mix
“Whether you love or hate ‘the painter of light,’ this collection of essays will both affirm your view and challenge it. . . . Readable yet scholarly, this book bridges the same sectors Kinkade’s work does, and is deserving of a broad audience. Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates and above; general readers.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Thomas Kinkade


Duke University Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4852-8

Chapter One

Thomas Kinkade and the History of Protestant Visual Culture in America DAVID MORGAN

Geography is an unavoidable element in any definition of nationhood. While the actual borders of a nation may be unstable, offering occasions for cultural and even military conflict, citizens commonly imagine their collective identity by seeing its material expression in the features of a terrain. Landscape is more than physical dimensions—it is the boundary of a larger self. If king, language, or a religious polity such as "Christendom" served as the pivot around which peoples orbited in eras before modernity, the modern nation-state relies on forms of collective imagination, among which landscape—in painting, song, and story, as well as national parks and roadside scenery—serves as the enduring deposit of national destiny. Landscape roots imagination in time and place and provides the meeting point of past and present, divine and mortal. It is among the most pervasive and most powerful forms of national mythology and imagined community, since landscape combines the mundane and the dramatic in a single range of common experience. For many Americans mountains, oceans, and forests bear the imprint and intent of divinity, while farms and landownership secure the material base for individuality, citizenship, and liberty. To be sure, the same may be said of other peoples for whom land and geography define national, ethnic, or religious identity. Americans exercise no monopoly on the cultural magic of a naturalized ethos. It is a common human myth, all the more so when its enchantment tailors a landscape to the peculiar lineaments of a people. This is the power of a national imaginary.

The popular regard for the art of Thomas Kinkade is not difficult to understand when considered in the context of the devotion of Americans to their national landscape. Kinkade offers American consumers pictures that intermingle piety with national pride by envisioning landscapes that are both glorious and inviting, magnificent and intimate, evidence of blessing from above and a history of goodness here below that vouch for the possibility of reclaiming what remains a divinely insured national trust. Although the appeal of Kinkade's work among his admirers depends on his keen insight into popular taste and his ambitious marketing, there is a long history of mass-produced and mass-marketed lithography in the United States that constitutes a historical framework for understanding the production, distribution, and reception of his work. Here I will survey that history by examining the religious subjects of lithography from Currier and Ives to Warner Sallman, including the marketing and reception of their images and focusing on the enduring importance of landscape as a subject matter that continues to inspire a special fondness in Americans generally and devout Americans in particular.

Nineteenth-Century Lithography: Piety and the American Home

Other than photography, the visual industry in the nineteenth century most closely associated with the home was the print trade—engravings and lithographs. These inexpensive forms of image making were available to almost all Americans, across racial, economic, and regional lines. Certainly the most well known, but by no means the only, firm responsible for providing affordable prints for parlor and workplace was Currier and Ives. Nathaniel Currier set up shop in New York in 1834. Around 1840 he began including religious imagery in his stock, especially geared to Catholic immigrants, whose use for devotional imagery of saints was answered by hundreds of editions of lithographs with captions in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. Currier issued many versions of the stations of the cross, as well as other biblical subjects.

In the mid-1840s Currier began to offer images aimed at Protestant consumers, including many different scenes of families reading the scriptures in the parlor and memorial imagery set at graveside in country cemeteries, with looming neo-Gothic churches in the background. It is a common misconception that Protestants historically have been averse to imagery. Although Protestants have often avoided placing images in church sanctuaries, they have, in fact, long made avid use of illustrations in instructional manuals and illustrated tracts and Bibles, as well as in print imagery designed for display in the home. Decorative imagery imbued with religious or moralizing features, including landscape, was displayed in the parlor, which was the most formal space within the American home. Both subjects of reading the scriptures and mourning at graveside offered Protestants pious imagery suitable for domestic display. Scripture reading was a common practice in the parlor, and the funerary imagery answered to the national movement to replace city graveyards with pastoral cemeteries conceived as idyllic rural gardens. Currier left blank spaces on the urns or gravestones in the prints in which customers wrote the personal details of their deceased loved ones. This personalization of the mass-produced artifact was enhanced by the hand-tinting of prints that Currier and Ives used. Even when the mechanical process of chromolithography allowed prints to be uniformly tinted, Currier and Ives continued to prefer coloration by hand. One reason may be that no two prints were ever exactly alike, giving customers the sense of a unique work to frame and display.

These mass-produced but personalized prints were placed on mantels, pianos, organs, bookshelves, and parlor walls. A print like Home to Thanksgiving (1867) celebrated the rural homestead, in particular, as the cherished location of domestic values, the origin of American identity, and the womb of family tradition (see fig. 1). Such imagery was designed by Currier and Ives for display in the home, especially the parlor. Parlors were the middle-and working-class home's single public space, the site for presenting the family to visitors, and therefore the home's most suitable location for the display of images. Parlors commonly included bureaus, bookshelves, and organs that served for the presentation of photographs, prints, and mementos for the delectation of visitors and family members. (It is a practice that persists to the present day. Living rooms, the latter-day parlor, are a favorite destination for Kinkade's prints.) Moreover, the home was the place for the spiritual formation of children. Displaying religious imagery on the walls of the home not only engaged in moral instruction but more subtly influenced thought, feeling, and behavior. According to Catherine Beecher and her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who authored The American Woman's Home, a popular guide to homemaking, tasteful chromolithographs and engravings that hung in the home exerted salutary effects on children.

Religious prints issued by Currier and Ives (James M. Ives joined the firm in 1852 and became a full partner in 1856) and their competitors expanded the visual expression of religious belief within and outside of the home. Evangelical Protestantism had always been committed to proselytism, so images that served this end posed little problem for most Protestants. In fact, on many occasions lithography firms produced religious prints to be used by organizations such as the American Tract Society, Sabbath schools, and the American Sunday School Union (ASSU) as premiums for subscribers or as rewards for Sunday school attendance. An example is The Happy Family (ca. 1850; fig. 2), issued at midcentury by Augustus Kollner Lithography, for circulation by the ASSU, which was founded in 1826 in Philadelphia. The image is designed as if to announce in direct visual terms what constitutes a happy family. Emerging from a rustic and sturdy country home, the well-dressed family assembles itself to walk the short distance to worship at the rural church, whose plain steeple rises in a clearing of picturesque foliage. The family evinces a decidedly gendered structure: the women in the center are flanked by males, who mirror one another in gesture, headgear, and the signature Protestant accoutrement—a thick volume of scripture tucked underneath the arm. The female interior of the family, tellingly enclosed by the masculine walls of father and son, consists of mother and daughters, typically cloaked and bonneted and occupied with the tender duty of the elder looking after the younger. The happy family is thus the family piously engaged in replicating moral values in the pastoral setting of American country life. The population shift from rural to urban began during the antebellum period. In 1790, when the first U.S. census was taken, only 3 percent of the nation's inhabitants lived in cities with a population of more than eight thousand people. By 1860, 36 percent of Americans living in the Northeast resided in urban centers, as did 30 percent of those living in the West. The percentages increased dramatically after the Civil War, but the psychological impact of urbanization was already well under way during the first half of the century.

Protestant clergy and moralists never tired of pitting the purity of rural life against the immoral distractions and enervating assault on vitality posed by living in the nation's cities. The appeal of nostalgic imagery like Home to Thanksgiving may have been the desire to secure the roots of family in the countryside—even if only in the imagination—in a time when offspring were leaving the family farm in increasing numbers. Attractive as town and city were to aspiring young Americans—offering employment in industry, finance, and commerce, and various forms of entertainment that were not available in rural life—many urban Americans with rural backgrounds were unwilling to sever ties to the countryside. Currier and Ives provided images for use in the home that were hugely popular in part because they mitigated the break with the farm, nurtured family ties, and helped Americans imagine their national unity as grounded in the rural ethos that they ritually remembered on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The cultural work of these images was not anti-urban escapism; rather, they provided a way of having both worlds—city life in fact and rural values in imagination and child rearing. If such imagery hailed the good life of the country, it was in large part because most Americans still lived in villages and on farms in 1860. But the pattern of migration to cities was already firmly established. Although some Protestant moralists denounced city life outright, most believed the better strategy was to reform inhabitants of the large cities. This was the agenda of countless temperance, antiprostitution, and orphan societies founded by Protestant associations during the antebellum era. Protestant activists wanted rural values to dominate big-town life in a rapidly industrializing nation whose labor force was being expanded each year by hundreds of thousands of immigrants. A substantial number of immigrants arriving in the United States between 1840 and 1920 were non-Protestant—Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, and a number of Asian religions—and most settled in cities. Tract, mission, temperance, and Sunday school societies seized on mass-produced images in their urban campaigns of moral reform, assimilation, and evangelization, disseminating images like The Happy Family to promote Protestantism among non-Protestants and renewal among those raised in or converted to the faith. Modeling piety on the ideal arrangements of country life sought to reinforce the moral authority of the home, which was considered a microcosm of society. Moreover, by focusing on scenes from modern everyday life rather than using biblical subjects, organizations like the American Sunday School Union sought to situate piety squarely in the daily and domestic lives of Americans. This is a lesson that Protestant image-makers in the twentieth century and the twenty-first would not forget.

One of the most ambitious programs for national conversion that was deeply invested in mass-produced imagery in the nineteenth century was the Sunday school movement. Although it first attained regional stature in 1824, when the American Sunday School Union was established in Philadelphia, the Sunday school movement organized itself into a national and international association in the 1870s. Leaders of the International Sunday School Association worked with a number of printing firms to provide weekly illustrated lessons for Sunday schools. Among these firms was the Providence Lithography Company. By 1880 Providence Litho was producing large lithographic posters for use in the Sabbath classroom. Beginning in 1889, the images were also issued as Bible lesson cards (fig. 3) the size of baseball cards, which students received in class and took home with them. Printed in several colors, the cards were issued on heavy stock and included on one side the lesson and on the other an image that illustrated the biblical text for that Sunday. The cards were each dated for use in a curriculum called the Uniform Lesson System, which organized a systematic reading of the Bible for all age groups and was used around the world by a large variety of Protestants. Providence Litho shipped its illustrated lesson posters and cards to Australia, New Zealand, British South Africa, Canada, Britain, and Germany. Business was successful. In 1911 Providence Litho sold 6,512,000 lesson cards. As can be seen in this example, issued in 1901, the subject is Jesus's Great Commission, when he sent his followers out to evangelize the nations (Matthew 28:19–20). But once again, rather than merely illustrating a Bible verse, the card encouraged American Sunday school children to imagine the scene in their own day, unfolding on the plains among Native Americans. The flat landscape appears as impassive and pliable as the calmly seated Indians, who listen to the homily of a preacher standing before the scene as if it were a panoramic screen rolled by him as he gestures mechanically.

The legibility of the imagery was key for the task of teaching children. "As has been repeatedly pointed out to us by the editors," the art director at Providence Litho told the artist Arthur Becher in 1932, who was at work on a lesson illustration, "we must be very careful to have the story so completely and clearly told that for small children the picture can stand without explanatory text." In addition to the editorial board, children knew what they wanted. The artists they most frequently relied on were Heinrich Hofmann (1824–1902), Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907), and Harold Copping (1863–1932). Hofmann and Plockhorst were nineteenth-century German artists trained in the academic tradition of narrative historical tableaux and shaped by the solemn piety of the Nazarene school. Copping was a British artist whose imagery was used by the Religious Tract Society and the London Missionary Society. His most beloved images were moments from the life of Jesus and images that corresponded to devotional hymns. Hofmann is perhaps most remembered for his paintings of Christ at prayer in Gethsemane, Christ as a boy teaching in the temple, and Christ and the rich young man. Plockhorst's most widely reproduced pictures were Christ blessing the children, the Good Shepherd, Guardian Angel, and Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Plockhorst's imagery circulated so widely among Sunday school materials and devotional posters that his painting of Christ as the Good Shepherd could still be used as the basis for a tile mural on a Lutheran church exterior in Virginia as late as 1970 (fig. 4). Providence Litho negotiated repeatedly over the course of decades to secure copyright permission to reproduce drawings and paintings by these artists. By using the images, the firm contributed to shaping the iconographical core of Protestant visual piety. Artists who were subsequently employed by the company were not sought out to innovate but to recycle this cherished set of subjects and imagery set forth by Hofmann, Plockhorst, and Copping. Artists were encouraged to emulate the expression, conception, and even particular aspects of the images sent to them as models. They were also directed to use particular colors and tonalities because of their appeal to children and their mechanical reproducibility. In 1934 an artist was coached "to keep in mind that for successful reproduction and appeal to children the following points are virtues: bright, cheery color, keyed fairly high; lively contrast of hue and value; full value scale to offset halftone shrinkage; simple mass pattern to allow extreme reduction." 12 The combination of these elements—clarity of theme and relation to biblical text, preferred subject matter, color and tonal appeal, and the exigencies of reproduction—yielded a popular aesthetic that stressed legibility, visual cogency, and upbeat emotional appeal. As the art director counseled an artist: "We must keep it in mind to lean over backwards in not offending any 'church-goers' and also avoid causing nightmares among 6 to 8 year old children."


Excerpted from Thomas Kinkade Copyright © 2011 by DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alexis L. Boylan is Assistant Professor in Residence in the Art and Art History Department and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Connecticut.

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Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book seems written by a very jelous artist. Not worthy of selling.