Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light" who made a fortune as art critics scoffed at his paintings of landscapes, cottages and churches inspired by his boyhood in Placerville, died Friday at 54.
Mr. Kinkade died at his home in Los Gatos in the San Francisco Bay Area of what appeared to be natural causes, said a family spokesman, David Satterfield.
His sentimental paintings, with their scenes of country gardens and churches in dewy morning light, were widely popular but disdained by the art establishment.
Mr. Kinkade claimed to be the nation's most collected living artist, with paintings and spinoff products said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be in 10 million U.S. homes.
He reveled in his market popularity at the expense of museum curators and critics.
"I am the greatest nightmare the critics and the art museum establishment have," he said in a 2008 interview with The Bee. "They can't figure out my art. Yet people understand it and love it."
His paintings generally depict tranquil scenes with lush landscapes and running streams. Many contain images from Bible passages.
Mr. Kinkade was born in Sacramento's Mercy Hospital in 1958 and moved to Placerville as a young boy. It was in the town of his youth that his art empire was born after he was commissioned to create a work for the Placerville Library. He came up with a rainy-day painting reflecting the Mother Lode town as he envisioned it looked in 1916.
A few years later, a Placerville gift shop began carrying his works. By 1990, the place was the Thomas Kinkade Gallery.
He created Media Arts Group Inc. to license his name and galleries. He offered a vast inventory of prints of his paintings, touched up by people called "master highlighters," and seized the market for what Media Arts called "aspire to" products for people unlikely to buy expensive art.
A secondary market for Mr. Kinkade's work took off. By 2005, a single day's listing on eBay included more than 4,500 Kinkade items, from an original painting at $225,000 to $9 prints.
No matter the price, Mr. Kinkade suggested to The Bee in 2008 that he would be remembered as an icon.
"I guarantee that 50 or 100 years from now, the art of Thomas Kinkade will be sought after and delivered to the museum public in the way Norman Rockwell's art was, and be embraced by the high-art critics. They'll say, 'This is relevant cultural art. It established a place in popular culture.' "
Mr. Kinkade studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
"Thom provided a wonderful life for his family," his wife, Nanette, said in a statement. "We are shocked and saddened by his death."