Thomas Kinkade’s Portrait of Christ

Popular Christian artist Thomas Kinkade passed away this month at age 54.  Known for his soft-focus paintings of country cottages, lighthouses, churches, and main streets, Kinkade is one of the most collected artists in America, with his paintings hanging in an estimated 10 million American homes.  Kinkade had said that it was his mission to bring peace and joy into the lives of others; “I’m trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel,” he said.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his immense commercial success, his work is often derided by art critics as nothing more than sentimental kitsch, devoid of truthfulness.  It’s the sort of work that inspires spinoffs like this combo nightlight–music box…

Thomas Kinkade merchandise

Since Kinkade’s death on April 6, newspapers have been reflecting on people’s diametric opinions of his work, asking questions like what makes art art (does being commercially focused make you less of an artist?), and what is the artist’s role in society (to make people feel good? to challenge them, or move them to action? to shine a light on reality? to display beauty?).

I’m going to sidestep all these questions for now (though please feel free to comment on them below if you wish) and instead focus on one of Kinkade’s paintings, one that hangs in my grandmother’s piano room and in my parents’ hallway.  It’s called The Prince of Peace

Thomas Kinkade Head of Christ

Thomas Kinkade, "The Prince of Peace," 1999. Oil on canvas.

This is one of my dad’s favorite depictions of Christ.  When I asked him why, he said, “It just is.”  He said it reminds him of how Christ suffered for us.  This painting is atypical for Kinkade, in that it’s a half-length portrait rather than a nature scene.  It’s also much more somber in tone, as conveyed by the figure’s downcast eyes, shadowy face, and the muted palette.

Sfumato is the name of the brush technique that gives the painting its hazy look—no harsh outlines, just soft tones blending into each other.  It almost looks as if he’s dissolving.  Changing realms.

You can see the faint suggestion of a crown, marking him as the mocked and tortured King of the Jews.  He’s a reject.  He has been abandoned by almost all his closest friends, and his own siblings.  Can’t you feel his isolation in this painting?

What is Christ thinking at this moment?  Why does he close his eyes?  Why does he turn his gaze toward the ground?  I imagine that he’s trying to tune out all the muffled cries and epithets, so that he can connect with his Father in concentrated prayer.  Maybe he’s mustering the power to forgive his wrongdoers, or to continue toward the cross.  Maybe he’s running through the filmstrip of his life, thinking back on all that’s he’s done and has yet to do.

The title of the painting is drawn from Isaiah 9:6:  “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”  But to me, the image brings to mind more readily Isaiah 53:3:  “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…”  My dad is right:  this image speaks of punishment endured for love; as the prophet writes, it was this “punishment that brought us peace.”

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