SAN FRANCISCO — To fans and the countless collectors who helped build painter Thomas Kinkade's commercial art empire, his idealized vision of the world usually served as a simple, soothing addition to the living room wall: a soft depiction of a churning seascape or a colorful garden or a cottage brimming with warm light.
Kinkade's vision, and the artworks he prolifically created from it, paid off handsomely for the self-described "painter of light," whose business grew into franchised galleries, reproduced artwork and spin-off products said to fetch at their peak some $100 million annually and adorn roughly 10 million homes.
Kinkade, who died Friday of what appeared to be natural causes in Los Gatos, Calif., embraced his popularity even as he drew less than appreciative attention from those within the art establishment who derided him, at least in part, for appealing so brazenly to the widest possible audience.
"In their minds, he represented the lowest type of art," said Jeffrey Vallance, an artist who hosted a show of Kinkade's artwork in Santa Ana, Calif. in 2004. "He was different from other artists. You kind of felt like he was giving people what they wanted."
Kinkade's art empire included reproductions of his numerous paintings in hand-signed lithographs, canvas prints, books and posters, calendars, magazine covers, cards, collector plates and figurines. As his art drew wider and wider attention, Kinkade didn't shy away.
"It is clear that everyday people need an art they can enjoy, believe in and understand," he wrote in a catalog to the 2004 show.
For Kinkade, such art meant light-infused renderings of tranquil landscape scenes, homes and churches that evoked an idealized past, some of which included religious iconography.
As word of Kinkade's untimely death at age 54 spread Saturday, fans flocked to some galleries to buy his work.
"It's crazy beautiful. We're struggling with our own emotions, yet the public is coming in and just buying art off the wall," said Ester Wells, gallery director at the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery in Pismo Beach, Calif. "Right now, people are just coming in and buying everything in our inventory."
Many customers bought art as a tribute while others said it was a smart investment: They feel his work will now be worth more down the road, Wells said. Others stopped by just to say how sorry they were to hear of his death.
"We're going to lose a great artist to the world but we'll never forget him," Wells said, adding that she thinks Kinkade will be remembered as another Norman Rockwell
Kinkade regarded Rockwell as his earliest hero. His mom had a big collection of copies of Saturday Evening Post magazines, he said in a biography on his website.
"The scenes were nostalgic and brought back very happy memories for people," said Marty Brown, who owns four galleries in Southern California that sell Kinkade paintings. Brown's galleries had already had a record sales day by noon on Saturday, he said.
The customers ranged from curious people who'd seen news of Kinkade's death to longtime collectors purchasing a few more pieces.
"Some people are coming and buying a couple or buying their first piece, or just buying something. But they all feel pretty bad, to tell you the truth," he said.
Kinkade had a fan base that was unprecedented, and he made collectors out of the many people who brought his art into their homes.
"That's market penetration that we've never seen in art, for sure," Brown said.
Yet some of the qualities that made Kinkade's art popular and accessible to everyday consumers also led to its criticism from art experts.
"I think the reason you probably aren't going to find his work in many museums, if any, is that there really wasn't anything very innovative about what he was doing...," said Michael Darling, chief curator of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. "I really think that he didn't bring anything new to art."
Kinkade was also criticized for selling reproductions of his works, not the originals.
"That was something that drove the art world crazy," Vallance said. "You were never really buying the real thing, you were buying something made by a machine."
In the 2004 catalog to his California show, Kinkade offered an answer to his critics, saying he didn't look down upon any type of art.
"As to the myriads of products that have been developed from my paintings, I can only state that I have always had the attitude that art in whatever format it is accessible to people is good..." he wrote. "All forms of art reproduction have meaning to some body of people."
But Alexis Boylan, who edited a 2011 book of essays, "Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall," said Kinkade presented his art as value-driven and contrasted it with rap music and other forms of art that he was less fond of.
"He saw his art as antagonistic towards other forms of artistic expression," she said. "He was very antagonistic towards modern and contemporary art."
Amid the success, though, Kinkade had run into personal difficulties in recent years.
In June 2010, he was arrested outside Carmel, Calif. on suspicion of driving under the influence. That same year, one of his companies also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy filing came as the company had started making payments on an almost $3 million court award against it in a lawsuit filed by a Virginia couple, Karen Hazlewood and Jeff Spinello.
The Virginia gallery owners sued Kinkade and his company in 2003, arguing that he'd fraudulently persuaded them to invest in a licensed Kinkade gallery, according to the Los Angeles Times. The couple alleged that they were being undercut by discount sellers whose prices they were barred from matching, and they had merchandise they couldn't sell.
The court eventually sided with the couple. Kinkade faced similar lawsuits from other owners as a number of Kinkade galleries failed from 1997 to 2005.
Brown said he hopes people remember Kinkade not only as a commercially successful artist, but one that raised millions for charity by auctioning his works.
"We've got a lot of people out there today that are a little sadder today because Thomas Kinkade passed away," he said, adding: "I just hope that he's in a better place."
Associated Press writers John S. Marshall in San Francisco, Michelle Price in Phoenix and Jason Keyser in Chicago contributed to this report.