A light goes out as 'King of Kitsch' dies aged 54

Derided by the critics but loved by the public, Thomas Kinkade made a fortune from his glowingly sentimental landscapes. David Randall looks at his life and legacy

Thomas Kinkade, the much-derided but hugely successful king of kitsch, has died at the age of 54. He was the painter whose saccharine-saturated, idealised landscapes suffused with artificial-looking light offended the critics yet were so popular that they hung in an estimated 10 million American homes. Their sales, plus their licensing on everything from greetings cards to plates, made him immensely wealthy.

His art was sentimental, and so was he. Kinkade married his childhood sweetheart, Nanette, and he frequently paid tribute to her by hiding her name, and those of his four daughters, within his paintings. The pair remained happily together until his death at his home near San Francisco. She said yesterday in a statement: "Thom provided a wonderful life for his family." He had his share of business disputes, but gave generously to charity.

The art establishment reviled his works with their scenes of cottages, country gardens and churches in a dewy morning light, often with a stream running nearby. Susan Orlean, writing in The New Yorker, wrote that his paintings were "a wishful and inaccurate rendering of what the world looks like, as if painted by someone who hadn't been outside in a long time".

Kinkade's response – apart from the size of his sales and bank balance – was: "I'm a warrior for light. With whatever talent and resources I have, I'm trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel." A biography on his website said Kinkade rejected "the intellectual isolation of the artist" and, instead, made "each of his works an intimate statement that resonates in the personal lives of his viewers". It was the closest he was ever likely to come to intellectualising his paintings.

That he had considerable technical talent was never in doubt. He was born and raised in Placerville, California, and studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "I was always the kid who could draw," he said. "I had this talent, and it was the one thing that gave me some kind of dignity in the midst of my personal environment." As a young man, Kinkade travelled by freight train from California to New York with a fellow fledgling artist, James Gurney, sketching the American landscape along the way.

In 1982 the two published The Artist's Guide to Sketching, a book that helped land Kinkade a job creating background art for animated films. He then began to sell his paintings, which certainly seem to owe something to the kind of scenery used in Walt Disney's Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But his use of pastel colours and backlit illumination was distinctively his. Ken Raasch, who co-founded the art production and distribution company Media Arts Group with Kinkade, once said: "I'd see a tree as being green, and he would see it as 47 different shades of green. He just saw the world in a much more detailed way than anyone I've ever seen."

Media Arts Group sells reproductions of Kinkade's paintings in hand-signed lithographs, and in a host of other formats including canvas prints, books, posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines. Its online store offers a wide range of his artworks and prints, as well as numerous branded products such as coffee mugs.

He claimed to be the nation's most collected living artist, and his paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch about $100m (£63m) a year in sales. Before Kinkade's company went private in the middle of the previous decade, it reportedly took in $32m per quarter from 4,500 dealers across the country.

He was never a hell-raiser, and described himself as a devout Christian. Nonetheless he got into the odd scrape when he'd been drinking. The Los Angles Times once reported that he had relieved himself on a Winnie the Pooh figure at a Disney hotel with the words: "This one's for you, Walt."