Wayne Thiebaud, portrait painter of American everyday life, dies at 101 | Culture

Wayne Thiebaud, the painter who elevated donuts, lollipops, ice cream cone and birthday cakes to the category of art and capturing America’s post-war sense of euphoria, died last weekend in Sacramento at 101, reported his New York gallery, Acquavella, which defined him in a communication on his social networks as “an American icon” who “lived with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis and, above all, everything, the painting ”. The cause of death has not been disclosed.

Generationally associated with the current of pop art, Thiebaud, who, like his contemporaries, was inspired by the mass culture of postwar America, opted for a less cynical approach to the models from which he started than, say, Andy Warhol. If any sentiment reigns in his clean, colorful compositions, it is nostalgia.

'Feet, Feet, Feet' (1961), oil on canvas by Wayne Thiebaud, property of the Crocker Art Museum collection (gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974).
‘Feet, Feet, Feet’ (1961), oil on canvas by Wayne Thiebaud, property of the Crocker Art Museum collection (gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert, 1974).

Born in Mesa, Arizona in 1920 and raised in a Mormon family in Southern California, he lived through the years of the Great Depression. And from those deprivations he was left with that pleasure to approach the abundant hour of American dessert like a Venetian vedutista of the eighteenth century. The contemplation of a pastry shop counter was for Thiebaud his own Grand Canal. That part of his work, essential in the collections of American museums, overshadowed the rest of his production, despite the fact that he also served as a portrait painter and as an original landscape painter.

With no prior academic training, he began painting professionally for Disney in the late 1930s; drew intertitles for the Pinocchio or Goofy stories. In World War II he worked as an illustrator for a newspaper of the Air Force. On his return home he enrolled in the University. He briefly met Willem De Kooning in New York, whom he used to cite as one of his influences. It is also easy to trace in his art, based on detail and perfectionism, references to the still lifes of Giorgio Morandi or the chromatic optimism of Sorolla, who enjoyed great fame in the United States.

And in the sixties, Thiebaut launched himself into cakes. That’s when they took him for a member of pop art. “That misunderstanding was also the source of his fame,” wrote the influential Australian critic Robert Hughes. At first, he confessed in 1985 in an interview on the San Jose Mercury News, He thought that going straight to dessert was not a “good idea for a respectable painter.” But he was carried away by the beauty of those sweet portions. “I just couldn’t stop painting them,” he said in that interview. Inspiration, explained to John Arthur in the book Realists at Work (Realists in Action, New York, 1983), came from his past as a restaurant clerk. “I can remember the rows of cakes. Those little fragmented views have always been poetic to me. “

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In the catalog of his most recent exhibition at Acquavella, Thiebaud wrote: “[La pintura] it is a wonderful combination of memory, imagination, and direct observation. It has a lot to do with longing. Mainly, what interests me and has always interested me is the wonderful search for the possibilities of painting, as well as being willing to take risks and try things that may not seem logical. Also check how my feelings and experiences of growing up as a child in America are reflected on the canvas. “

'Gumball machine' (1970), de Wayne Thiebaud.
‘Gumball machine’ (1970), de Wayne Thiebaud.

A dedicated professor, he left his mark on several generations of students at the Californian University of Davis, near Sacramento, where he served from 1960 to 1991. The rest of his life he maintained his bond as a teacher emeritus.

The market always treated Thiebaud well, although his work enjoyed increasing interest in his later years, in which he also maintained an active presence in the American media. In November 2019, one of his paintings, inspired by a bakery, set a personal record: Encased Cakes It sold for more than $ 8.4 million (€ 7.42 million) at Sotheby’s in New York. The following year, a few months before his 100th birthday, Four Pinball Machines (1962) grossed more than 19 million at Christie’s.

At 101 he spent most of his days in the studio, encouraged by, as he used to say with his characteristic humility, “this almost neurotic fixation on trying to learn to paint.” A traveling retrospective organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, tours the United States to commemorate its centennial. Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on the bill right now at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

A widower since 2015, he is survived by two daughters, a son and six grandchildren.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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