Los Gatos painter Thomas Kinkade grew famous and wealthy for his comforting, bucolic and often spiritual paintings -- a snowy rural church on Christmas Eve bursting with light from within, a sailing ship at sea emerging from a cloud-flecked sunrise.

But the final years of his life were more tumultuous than his art would suggest.

The cause of Kinkade's death remained unknown Saturday, but the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office has scheduled an autopsy for Monday morning. Los Gatos police declined to comment Saturday about the circumstances surrounding the artist's death, referring questions to the coroner's office.

In a statement, his family on Friday night attributed the death to natural causes.

"He was kind of a bigger-than-life character," said Los Gatos Mayor Steve Rice. "The community and the art world have lost quite an individual."

The fine-art world always derided Kinkade's work as little more than commercially successful kitsch, but the massive popularity of the self-described "painter of light" allowed Kinkade to create a national network of several hundred Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries, an empire that began to falter during the Great Recession. His Morgan Hill art company collapsed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010, listing nearly $6.2 million in creditors' claims.

In Los Gatos, Kinkade was remembered Saturday for helping the community by donating his art to benefit Los Gatos High School and other local educational and police charities.


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But there was also a darker side, one hinted at by Kinkade's DUI arrest near Carmel in 2010, fraud charges by two Virginia gallery owners that led to a 2006 order that Kinkade's company pay $860,000 in damages.

Still, in Los Gatos and across California, as news of Kinkade's death at age 54 spread Saturday, the painter's legions of fans flocked to buy his work.

"Today has been unbelievable," said Richard Smith, who owns Kinkade Signature galleries in Pismo Beach and Solvang on the central coast. "It's sad. I can't control what happens in life, but as far as sales go, this has been our biggest selling day in history, and I've been running galleries for 20 years."

Like many Kinkade gallery owners, Smith has seen his business selling Kinkade's art shrivel in tough economic times, as his network of 25 California Kinkade galleries was reduced to two. But Smith, who has known Kinkade personally since the mid-1990s, called the painter "a damn nice guy."

"A lot of people want to trash Thom. Let them. As far as what Thom Kinkade means to me, he was really good to me," said Smith, who said there is no mystery why an estimated 10 million homes contain Kinkade's work.

"Some people think it's marketing. I don't believe any of that. I think Thom just has a gift," Smith said. "He paints the good, and he doesn't paint the negative. Thom paints happy scenes; he paints scenes that people want to go to."

In downtown Los Gatos, painter Steve Grabowski was fielding questions Saturday from Kinkade fans at the Los Gatos Museum Gallery about whether the value of Kinkade's work would shoot up after his death. Grabowski, who knew Kinkade's work well but didn't even know he lived in the Bay Area, called Kinkade "a very highly skilled artist," but one who directed those talents toward commercial success, rather than aesthetic greatness.

"It sold well with the man on the street, but to those of us in the art community, we looked on it as Hallmark cards in a (picture) frame," Grabowski said.

Gavin Pate, of San Jose, who tends bar at the Black Watch on North Santa Cruz Avenue, sometimes wondered why a world-famous painter would want to hang out at his bar.

"We're all like nobodies," Pate said. "He was just a regular guy. Sometimes he wanted you to know (he was famous), but most times he didn't."

Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/swiftstories or facebook.com/mike.swift3.

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