"Painter of Light" Thomas Kinkade dies at 54

Artist Thomas Kinkade, seen here in his California studio in 2001, was a self-described "Painter of Life." The artist died Friday, April 6, 2012 at age 54.

(CBS/AP) One of the most successful artists of all time, prolific painter Thomas Kinkade - the self-described "Painter of Light" - died Friday at the age of 54.

A spokesperson for the Kinkade family said the artist died at home in Los Gatos, Calif., apparently of natural causes.

Kinkade's paintings were anything but controversial, depicting scenes of a light-filled America with a heavy emphasis on home, hearth and church. His sentimental scenes of country gardens and pastoral landscapes in dewy morning light were beloved by many but criticized by the art establishment.

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

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."

And he had a large following: Kinkade's paintings and spin-off products were said to fetch some $100 million a year in sales, and to be in 10 million homes in the United States.

Chances are you either have one of his paintings in your home, or you've been in a home that does.

While Kinkade's volume of work featured a lot of flowers and sunshine, he was no shrinking violet - calling himself the most collected living artist of all time, reports CBS News correspondent Dave Browde.

In a 2001 "60 Minutes" profile of Kinkade, Morley Safer took us behind the scenes of a studio that looked more like a factory . . . a factory that produced mass-market art. (To watch the profile, click on the video player below.)

Kinkade 04:50

"Anyone could come in and find one that would tug at their heartstrings," said gallery owner Maurine Myer.

Before Kinkade's Media Arts Group went private in the middle of the past 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.

Many of those items are available in a wide selection line of home furnishings on its online store.

Artist Thomas Kinkade unveils his painting, "Prayer For Peace," at the opening of the exhibit "From Abraham to Jesus," Friday, Sept. 15, 2006, in Atlanta. AP Photo/Gene Blythe

His artistic philosophy was not to express himself through his paintings like many artists, but rather to give the masses what they wanted: warm, positive images, Ken Raasch, who co-founded Kinkade's company with him, told the Mercury News.

"I'd see a tree as being green, and he would see it as 47 different shades of green," Raasch said. "He just saw the world in a much more detailed way than anyone I've ever seen."

Bridges are a frequent subject, as are steps or grassy inclines leading through gate images. Some of his paintings are visual depictions of Bible verses, such as "A Light in the Storm," taken from John 8:12: "I am the light of the world."

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.