Decades of mean-spirited personal attacks against Thomas Kinkade for the bucolic images of storybook cottages he painted, as well as a heartbreaking split from his wife and four daughters two years ago, had taken a toll on the famous "Painter of Light," his brother said Thursday.
He turned to the bottle, battling alcoholism over the past four or five years, Patrick Kinkade said of his brother in an exclusive interview with this newspaper. Even though he had sobered up and had been "in his studio painting religiously" over the past few months, he said, Thomas Kinkade had a relapse just before his death last Friday at his hillside home in Monte Sereno.
A fire department dispatcher sent Engine 8 to respond to the Kinkade home on Ridgecrest Avenue, where Kinkade's girlfriend had called police. "Fifty-four-year-old male unconscious, not breathing," the dispatcher says in a recording by firescan.net. "Apparently he's been drinking all night and not moving."
Patrick Kinkade called his brother a brilliant and prolific artist and intellectual, but one who fought inner demons.
"He would shoulder the world, pull the naysayers on his back and smile when he was doing it," said Patrick Kinkade, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University. "As much as he said it didn't bother him, in his heart deep down inside it would sadden him that people would criticize so hatefully his work and his vision when people didn't understand him."
Kinkade's paintings depicting dreamy scenes of candlelit cottages, stone bridges and garden gates was shunned by art critics as tacky and kitsch but adored by Main Street Americans when reproduced on affordable canvasses, coffee cups and calendars. By 2005, the company was one of the top 50 licensed brands in the country, with more retail sales than MTV, said Dan Byrne, former president and chief executive officer of the Morgan Hill-based Thomas Kinkade empire. Kinkade and his founding partner, Ken Raasch, came up with the idea of "painter of light" on a road trip.
"What people were responding to was the way his paintings made them feel," Byrne said. "We used to call it a 20-second vacation on their wall. People wanted to put themselves into the picture in their imagination. He wanted to give people a way to celebrate the good things in the world around them and visually take a little break in what they contend with day-to-day."
The images showed pictures of the way Kinkade wished the world would be, his brother said. The Kinkades grew up in the Sierra mountain town of Placerville, "poor, very poor," his brother said. With a mostly absentee father, the two boys, 18 months apart, their older sister and mother lived in a small house so ramshackle that the front porch broke off, cardboard patched a broken window and ceiling plaster fell onto the dinner table.
Kinkade showed artistic talent since he was 3. He had the good fortune of being mentored by artists, Charlie Bell and then Glenn Wessells, who used a Placerville horse barn as a studio. Wessells was chairman of the art department at UC Berkeley and encouraged Kinkade to enroll. Kinkade married his wife, Nanette, in 1982, a girl he met on his paper route.
In 1992, Thomas Kinkade painted his first "Victorian Christmas" of a grand Victorian home in Placerville. "It was a fine house with fine people living there, with big parties," Patrick Kinkade recalls. "Tom and I would stand outside the gates and say, 'that's the kind of house I want to live in.' We were always on the outside of the gate looking in."
When Kinkade finished the painting, he told his brother to look closely: "He painted two little boys riding sleds down the hillside," Patrick Kinkade said. "Tom and I finally made it on the inside. I still to this day get chills."
His critics, however, cringed. And while one letter of appreciation from a cancer patient or a person in pain balanced out a hundred knocks from art professors, the criticism still hurt, friends said.
"Artists love encouragement and feed off encouragement," Raasch said. But he endured "a constant array of criticism he knew was not true, yet some people believed it."
Still, the business grew, and Kinkade and his wife moved to the South Bay. They built a house with a name like his paintings -- Ivy Gate -- with peaked roofs and dormers, a curving driveway and leafy branches of birch and maple trees.
They raised their four daughters there until the couple split in 2010 -- the same year his company filed for bankruptcy. Demand for his paintings declined. Galleries closed. The company reorganized and is paying creditors back 100 percent, company executives say.
It was around that time that Los Gatos locals who had seen him dining with his family in prior years saw him instead partying at the bars. With a restricted driver's license from a 2010 drunken driving arrest, an armed body guard who doubled as a driver escorted him around town. He would often mix water with $200 bottles of Silver Oak cabernet. He was kicked out of at least one bar and at times could get loud and argue with other patrons, said Pete Jillo, a friend and owner of Gardino Fresco on Santa Cruz Avenue. But he had a big heart, Jillo said, and was a generous philanthropist. He even bought paintings from a local homeless man.
Kinkade often invited Jillo to his home to sit by the fireplace, smoke cigars and drink red wine. The subject of Kinkade's estrangement from his family often came up.
"He loved Nanette and was heartbroken," Jillo said, and he would try to stop drinking so he could see his daughters.
Over the past couple of months, he was trading red wine for diet Cokes and working out at the Courtside club. He told his brother he was "adopting a clean lifestyle" and planning a trip to visit his daughter who was studying abroad in Australia.
But alcoholism clenched its grip. The night before he died, he turned back to the bottle. His live-in girlfriend called police the next morning. Autopsy results are pending.
"There's no hypocrisy in Tom's vision," his brother said. "What you're looking at is a man. He believed in God. He loved his daughters. He wanted people to be affirmed by his work. But he was awfully human."
Staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.