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Popular painter Thomas Kinkade dies at 54

Artist Thomas Kinkade once said that he had something in common with Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell: He wanted to make people happy.

And he won success with brushwork paintings that focused on idyllic landscapes, cottages and churches -- highly popular works that became big sellers for dealers across the United States.

The self-described "Painter of Light," who died Friday at age 54, produced sentimental scenes of country gardens and pastoral landscapes in dewy morning light that were beloved by many but criticized by the art establishment.

Kinkade died at his home in Los Gatos in the San Francisco Bay Area of what appeared to be natural causes, said family spokesman David Satterfield.

He claimed to be the nation's most collected living artist, and his paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch $100 million a year in sales and to be in 10 million U.S. homes.

Those light-infused renderings are often prominently displayed in buildings, malls and on products -- generally depicting tranquil scenes with lush landscaping and streams running nearby. Many contain images from Bible passages.

"I'm a warrior for light," Kinkade, a self-described devout Christian, told the San Jose Mercury News in 2002, a reference to the medieval practice of using light to symbolize the divine. "With whatever talent and resources I have, I'm trying to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel."

Before Kinkade's Media Arts Group went private in the middle of the last decade, the company took in $32 million per quarter from 4,500 dealers across the country, according to the Mercury News. The cost of his paintings range from hundreds of dollars to more than $10,000.

According to his website, Kinkade's paintings have been reproduced in hand-signed lithographs, canvas prints, books, posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines. The website touts his Disney collection and offers a gallery locator, where fans can find nearby dealers.

A biography on the 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."

"I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy," he said.

He called Rockwell his earliest hero. "I remember my mom had a big collection of copies of (Saturday Evening Post) magazines, and that was really my introduction to those great illustrators," he said.

Kinkade was born and raised in Placerville, Calif. He studied at the University of California at Berkeley and the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

As a young man, Kinkade traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist, James Gurney, sketching the American landscape along the way.

The website says that with these sketches in hand, the two were able to get published "The Artist Guide to Sketching" in 1982, a book that helped land him a job creating background art for animated films.

Also that year, he married his childhood sweetheart, Nanette, to whom he frequently paid tribute by hiding her name and those of his four daughters within his paintings.

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