Wayne Thiebaud, whose paintings were (almost) good enough to eat, dies at 101


Slices of pie arranged in neat rows, shiny candy apples, sundaes topped with cherries on the edge of the cast – these are among the most recognizable designs painted by Wayne Thiebaud, who died on Saturday December 25 at the age 101 years old. His death was confirmed in a statement by Acquavella Gallery in New York.

Born in 1920 in Mesa, Arizona and raised in Sacramento, California, Thiebaud is arguably best known for his tantalizing depictions of bakery counters, but his renderings of gumball machines, beach scenes, and the steep streets of San Francisco are comparatively irresistible. Unlike some painters of his generation, Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist, attending business school in Los Angeles and work as draughtsman, sign painter and illustrator until the late 1940s.

Around the age of 30, he turned his attention to the fine arts for good, earning a BA from San Jose State College and an MA from Sacramento State College. Thiebaud taught art for nearly three decades, first at Sacramento Junior College and then at the University of California, Davis.

An eclectic confluence of 20th century pictorial expressions, Thiebaud’s works do not belong to any single movement, rather encompassing a unique visual language that sought the charm of the everyday. All of Thiebaud’s work is imbued with an Americana sensibility and tinged with deadpan pop humor. He has mastered the textures of icing, meringue, and donut icing in thick, rich brushstrokes that reveal the influence of Abstract Expressionism, yet his works exude the alluring mystery of an Edward Hopper bar scene.

Thiebaud gave his paintings their distinctive glow through a technique he called “halo”, juxtaposing warm and cool colors to make objects stand out. In one interview 2018 at the Morgan Library and Museum, he described discovering the process while painting a slice of pumpkin pie.

“I mixed a large amount of what I thought was the color and put it on the triangle, and I was horrified,” Thiebaud recalled. “I did a light yellow design, then a blue design so I could tell the two different positions, and when I put the pumpkin mist on that color, the edges popped out, and I thought, ‘ well, that kinda sounds better, I’ll leave that.

“So I did this painting that looked like someone else had done it, and I looked at it and said, ‘Man, if I paint this thing, it’ll be the end of it. of me as a serious artist, no one will ever look at something like that,” he continued.

But look, they did, often with praise and fascination. In 1967 Thiebaud was selected to represent the United States at the São Paulo Biennial, and in 1994 he was reward the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the US government. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held the first major survey of his work in 1985, one of many exhibits in museums and galleries both locally and abroad. A traveling retrospective organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints and Drawingsis currently on display at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas until January 16, 2022.

“Wayne has led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis and most importantly, creating art,” reads the statement from Acquavella Gallery, which has worked with the artist since 2011. “Even at 101 years old, he still spent most of his days in the studio, driven by, as he described it with his characteristic humility, “this almost neurotic obsession with trying to learn to paint”.


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