Slices of pie arranged in neat rows, glossy candy apples, cherry-topped ice cream sundaes at the brink of melting — these are among the most recognizable motifs painted by Wayne Thiebaud, who died on Saturday, December 25, at the age of 101. His death was confirmed in a statement by Acquavella Gallery in New York City.
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 sloping streets of San Francisco are comparably irresistible. Unlike some painters of his generation, Thiebaud began his career as a commercial artist, attending a trade school in Los Angeles and working as a cartoonist, sign painter, and illustrator until the late 1940s.
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Nearing the age of 30, he made a permanent shift to fine art, earning a BA from San Jose State College and an MA from Sacramento State College. Thiebaud taught art for almost three decades, first at the Sacramento Junior College and then at the University of California, Davis.
An eclectic confluence of 20th-century painterly expressions, Thiebaud’s works belonged to no single movement, encompassing instead a unique visual language that sought out the charm in the everyday. The entirety of Thiebaud’s oeuvre is steeped in an Americana sensitivity and tinged with a deadpan, Pop-like humor. He mastered the textures of frosting, meringue, and donut glaze in thick, rich brushstrokes that reveal the influence of Abstract Expressionism, but his works exude the alluring mystery of an Edward Hopper bar scene.
Thiebaud lent his paintings their distinctive glow through a technique he called “halation,” juxtaposing warm and cool colors to make objects pop. In a 2018 interview at the Morgan Library and Museum, he described discovering the process while painting a slice of pumpkin pie.
“I mixed a big gob of what I thought was the color and put it on the triangle, and I was horrified,” Thiebaud recalled. “I made a light yellow drawing and then a blue drawing so I could tell the two different positions, and when I put the pumpkin mist on this color the edges showed up, and I thought, ‘well, that makes it look a little bit better, I’ll leave that in.’”
“So I made this painting that felt like someone else had done it, and I looked at it and said, ‘boy, if I paint that stuff that’ll be the end of me as a serious artist, nobody will ever look at something like this,’” he continued.
But look they did, often with praise and fascination. In 1967, Thiebaud was selected to represent the US in the São Paulo Biennial, and in 1994, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists by the US government. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art mounted the first major survey of his work in 1985, one of numerous exhibitions 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 Drawings, is currently on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas through January 16, 2022.
“Wayne led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis, and above all, making art,” says the statement from Acquavella Gallery, which has worked with the artist since 2011. “Even at 101 years old, he still spent most days in the studio, driven by, as he described with his characteristic humility, ‘this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint.’”