Wayne Thiebaud: Sugar & Spice and Everything Nice
Wayne Thiebaud is best known for his joyful paintings of cakes, pies, and ice cream cones. He also painted beautiful portraits, breathtaking streetscapes of San Francisco, and stunning landscapes of the Sacramento Delta. But cakes and pies and other ordinary objects are his speciality.
Thiebaud is associated with Pop art, though he doesn’t consider himself a Pop artist. His earliest work predates the work of famous Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. His work also has more depth than most Pop art. Rather than painting flat shapes or using Ben Day dots, as the Pop artists did, Thiebaud adds shadows and interesting lighting. He also layers on the paint to add three-dimensionality. The gooey frosting on his cakes and the fluffy meringue on his lemon pies look deliciously real.
Thiebaud uses traditional painting techniques inspired by artists such as Johannes Vermeer and Thomas Eakins. He studied Realism and Still Life styles and adopted them for the modern world. He is inspired by cartoons, commercial art, and modern design, and successfully mixes these styles with art theories from the past. The result is a celebration of the festive and colorful aspects of our contemporary world.
Wayne Thiebaud Biography
Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona on November 15, 1920. His family moved to Southern California a year later. He graduated from high school in Long Beach, California. During his high school years he apprenticed one summer at Walt Disney Studios drawing “in-betweens” for cartoons featuring Goofy, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket. His job was to render the frames between the more important images. He was paid $14 a week. He was there only three months before getting fired for participating in union activities. The next summer he studied at the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles, where he gained skills in lettering, sign-painting, cartooning, and commercial art.
After high school, Thiebaud worked as a cartoonist and designer in California and New York. During World War II, he served as an artist in the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1945. In 1949, he enrolled at San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) before transferring to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1952.
In 1951 Thiebaud had a solo exhibition at the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery (now the Crocker Art Museum) called “Influences on a Young Painter — Wayne Thiebaud.” He also had a solo show in San Francisco at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1960 and shows in New York City at the Staempfli and Tanager galleries.
His first solo exhibition that got a lot of attention was in 1962 with the Allan Stone Gallery in New York City. The exhibition received critical and commercial success, launching Thiebaud’s career. Allan Stone became Thiebaud’s primary dealer, friend, and collector for over forty years, until Stone’s death in 2006. Thiebaud’s life-size Bakery Counter oil painting from around this time, one of the largest paintings he ever made, must have gotten a lot of attention.
In the fall of 1962, Thiebaud continued to gain recognition when he joined other artists in the groundbreaking International Exhibition of the New Realists at the Sidney Janis Gallery. This exhibition was a survey of contemporary Pop art and the related Nouveau Réalisme movement. The exhibition’s goal was to gain respect for artists painting in a new realistic style, including Thiebaud, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana, Marisol, Christo, and several others.
The Pop art movement presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from advertising, comic books, and mundane mass-produced cultural objects. Abstract artists Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Phillip Guston, and Adolph Gottlieb left the Sidney Janis Gallery as a protest when the gallery ran the International Exhibition of the New Realists show, claiming that Pop art cheapened the field. Luckily, Pop art and other post-modern art, including Thiebaud’s work, has survived this early criticism.
Teaching and Personal Life
Even though he exhibited internationally, he was also a teacher, first at Sacramento City College, and then at University of California at Davis. He said that the students kept him honest. “They ask tough questions and are wonderfully ironic.” Even after he retired he continued to teach one class a semester into his 80s. (UC Davis, “The Art of Wayne’s World”, 2005.) His teaching philosophy is straightforward. Thiebaud makes sure that students learn the basics of drawing, painting, and art theory. He says they should paint what they know, much as he paints scenes from his past and scenes from his present in the Sacramento area where he still lives.
Wayne Thiebaud has been married twice. He had two children with his first wife, Patricia Patterson, one of whom is the model and writer Twinka Thiebaud. With his second wife, Betty Jean Carr, he had a son, Paul LeBaron Thiebaud, who became an art dealer and sadly passed away from colon cancer in 2010. He also adopted Betty Jean’s son, Matthew. Thiebaud and Betty Jean were married for 51 years until her death and she was one of his favorite subjects to paint. The woman on the left in his 1965 Two Seated Figures is Betty Jean!
Thiebaud’s Humor and Work Ethic
Thiebaud has a sense of humor. Interviewers always mention his dry wit and self-deprecating humor. His first art dealer, Allan Stone, said he is a “great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility.” We can see his sense of humor in his art. We imagine him chuckling as he painted fake food that nobody would ever eat, or carefully painted lipsticks and ties, all lined up ready for a night out on the town.
His humor isn’t just “happy go lucky,” though. We get a sense of nostalgia in his paintings. His paintings of food make us think of more innocent times, perhaps from childhood, when long summer days were punctuated by a trip to the snack bar for an ice cream cone or the neighborhood bakery for a piece of pie. His paintings also have a sense of irony. By lining up his appetizing dishes in neat rows, using exact geometry and shadowing, we think about the fact that life isn’t always perfectly sweet.
Despite his sense of humor, Thiebaud is very serious about his art, and quite intellectual. In a 2019 interview, while accepting an award from the California College of the Arts, he said, “I don’t know what in the world art is. There’s an abstract concept. A painting exists as a flat thing that doesn’t move, that doesn’t speak. It’s a craft as well as an activity that you pursue like a scientist to find something new, in light of your awareness of art history. Art is an unnatural act. You’re lying. It’s a wonderful fiction. You have to bring it to life. Your involvement, with your empathic powers, is to participate in a wonderful little painted world. It’s a miracle.”
Thiebaud has a strong work ethic, and was once called the “hardest working artist in America.” (Art Story, “Wayne Thiebaud”) He sometimes works on a piece for many years until he is satisfied with it. For example, he started Tapestry Skirt in 1976, but worked on it for decades before declaring it finished.
Wayne Thiebaud 100: Celebrating His 100th Birthday!
Thiebaud’s career has spanned eighty years, and on November 15th, 2020, he turns 100! To honor his birthday, the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA is hosting an extensive, celebratory retrospective of the painter’s achievements. The exhibition will be on view at the Crocker from October, 2020 to January, 2021. Lial A. Jones, the museum’s director and CEO, says that they are “delighted to celebrate his 100th birthday with an exhibition that honors the vitality, vibrancy, and wit of his art and civically engaged life.”
In August 2020, the New Yorker magazine featured on its cover a luscious ice cream cone painted by Thiebaud to honor his upcoming 100th birthday. The magazine has featured Thiebaud paintings on its cover before, including in 2002 (more ice cream cones), 2012 (a hot dog stand), and 2019 (a turkey dinner). In an interview with the New Yorker to accompany the 2020 cover, Thiebaud says that “People and love of people is a great part of my life. I’m very interested in the human condition.” He goes on to add that an upcoming show at Laguna Art Museum featuring clowns is related to this interest.
In recent interviews with Thiebaud, he doesn’t seem almost 100, but he does seem like a gracious, highly intelligent, hard-working painter. One of his latest paintings is from 2019 and shows that he is still producing great art. Instead of yummy food, his Sunset Streets Study shows a beautiful sunny day in San Francisco.
Thiebaud isn’t just about sugar and spice and everything nice, though that may be what he’s most famous for. His long career has been successful because of his talent, skills, knowledge of art history, and strong work ethic. In the 2019 interview with the California College of the Arts, he said that painting is “hard work and you make mostly errors. You get yourself all worked up and have to start again. You have to be tough on yourself. The work ethic, besides brains, is the most important thing.”
We are so glad that Thiebaud has worked so hard and brought such joy to his viewers. When we look at his art, we do a double-take, and invariably, we smile. We laugh and forget for a moment that the world can be a dark place.
We have worked directly with the Crocker Museum and the Thiebaud Foundation to license and carefully proof a large number of works from their show for availability as archival reproductions. Many are available for the first time. We are proud to present those works here, along with other Thiebaud classics.