I knew when I wrote a recent ArtyFact on Jean-Leon Gérôme and mass marketing in nineteenth century art reproductions, I'd hear from someone who'd take issue with my using in the same sentence the names Rockwell and Kinkade, the two most notable examples of twentieth century success in this area. So, when I got a note from one of my most faithful readers taking me to task for doing so, I was hardly surprised. Actually, I can recall a time a few years back when I rather vehemently debated the Rockwell-Kinkade comparison. So, I guess I should note that there are some differences between these artists. Whereas before I concentrated on their similarities, let me here talk about their differences.
While both Rockwell and Kinkade are what I'd term "feel good" artists, they've approached their art from different angles. Kinkade, on the one hand, has a very limited, very focused, yet very powerful vehicle for achieving this aim. It can be summed up in the word "home." This simple little four-letter word strikes a chord in the soul of us all. Just try changing your home sometime and see what kind of emotional stirrings and chaos it creates. Kinkade visually stereotypes and homogenises these powerful emotions with his quaint, hearth and heart cottages and Victorian homestead celebrations of life and levity to an almost unimaginable degree. My devoted reader mentioned the word "truth" in her distancing herself from Kinkade while embracing Rockwell and Gérôme. And in fact, there's not a lot of modern-day truth in Kinkade's nostalgically optimistic domestic cuteness as compared to the reality of most of our daily lives. But having said that, I must point out that a similar cuteness and persistent optimism pervades much of Rockwell's work too.
The difference is that Rockwell always focused upon the happy inhabitants of Kinkade's sweet little cottages, rather than on any narrow, symbolic, architectural tie that binds. Thus Rockwell seemed always to at least be in search of truth in the life and times in which he lived. By contrast, Kinkade simply proclaims that he's found truth and then in his picturesque cottages, happily seeks to dwell with it, displaying a complacent lack of curiosity for any other possible existence of truth. And in so doing he appears to be blind to any other form of truth, thus severely limiting any degree of truthfulness his work might otherwise embody. Yet in fact, despite Rockwell's apparent broadness of focus in search of truth, there is only somewhat more of it in his largely rural and small town images than in Kinkade's attempt to capture the same idealised existence in depicting only the architectural containers of this sweetly provincial lifestyle. The difference is, Kinkade's pretty containers mostly seem empty of life despite the glowing lights in his windows. Rockwell's equally quaint genre scenes, for whatever they may lack in hardscrabble truth and reality, are always full of life.
Now, to add Gérôme to this equation, unlike Rockwell and Kinkade, rarely if ever does he "descend" to the sweet genre of his own nineteenth century life and times. Like Rockwell, Gérôme is also in search of truth, but his search takes on moralistic tones, dallying with questions of right and wrong, calling up often grave moral dilemmas while providing no answers. In effect, he relies upon his viewers to know the obvious moral truth even as he also invites them to toy with what I'd call the "what if" factor, vicariously placing themselves in his exotic narrative scenes of academic realism to speculate upon the momentary pleasure of enjoying the immoral "wrong" answer to his proposed questions.
Thus Gérôme's appeal was one of moral familiarity while at the same time allowing a degree of moral ambiguity not to be found in the work of either Rockwell or Kinkade. And if Rockwell had limited himself merely to simple, twentieth century genre, we'd have to say Gérôme’s efforts contain a good deal more depth and truth. But we all know Rockwell's work often to be much more timeless than this. At his best, Rockwell could rise to a level of truthfulness and profound importance far above Gérôme and light years beyond Kinkade. But it's hard to breathe as an artist at such rarefied heights, and we can hardly blame Rockwell for merely visiting them rather than trying to live upon them. In contrast, perhaps the biggest fault we can rest upon Kinkade is his never aspiring to depict anything more than his (and our) symbolic abodes - our least common denominator level of emotional creature comfort.
Therefore, as I said initially, what these three artists share, beyond a certain comforting level of unambiguous technical skill, has more to do with mass marketing than either truth or similarities of content. Kinkade relies upon his own marketing savvy over creativity. Rockwell let The Post and Curtis Publications worry about his marketing, leaving him free to concentrate strictly upon product alone. And as I mentioned previously, Gérôme had his father-in-law, to do the same, though in his case the ties were obviously much tighter, practically putting him in a position as "staff artist" for the Goupil marketing juggernaut. So while the use of the word "truth" is not irrelevant in discussing such art, in that is has something to do with its intellectual and emotional appeal, by the same token, it has little to do with the individual successes of each man.