Wayne Thiebaud, Iconic California Painter, Remembered

  • December 27, 2021 15:25

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“Cold Case” by Wayne Thiebaud, 2010/2011/2013. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York. Courtesy Acquavella Galleries.
Nine Jelly Apples, 1964, watercolor and graphite. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of George Hopper Fitch, B.A. 1932. Photography by Tony De Camillo, © Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Wayne Thiebaud, Reservoir and Orchard, 2001, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 inches (101.6 x 101.6 cm), Collection of Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud. Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Wayne Thiebaud, Yosemite, 1969-2010, oil on linen, gift of the Wayne Thiebaud Foundation (UC Davis photo by Gregory Urquiaga)

I think art is probably our saving grace. It can almost ignore our animal premise and spirits. It’s worth investing in as many deeply involved people as we can muster because I think that’s where our hopes lie: in giving us a life of pleasure, challenge, comfort, joyousness—all of the things that make us human and able to relate kindly to each other. -- Wayne Thiebaud, 2021

Celebrated American artist Wayne Thiebaud, 101, died on December 25, at his home in Sacramento, California.

Known for his luminous paintings of everyday objects and scenery, from rows of pies and cakes to San Francisco streets, Thiebaud was recently honored with a traveling retrospective marking his 100th birthday. The exhibition Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, organized by the Crocker Art Museum in his longtime homebase of Sacramento, has traveled to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, where it is on view until January 16, 2022. The show concludes at Brandywine River Museum of Art, Chadds Ford, Penn., from Feburary 5 to May 8, 2022.

Thiebaud's New York dealer, Acquavella gallery, wrote on Instagram: "An American icon, Wayne led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis, and above all, making art. 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.'" 

Born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920, Thiebaud was raised in southern California. He admired cartoons, comic strips and clowns from a young age and began his career as a commercial artist in his teens. He apprenticed as an animator for The Walt Disney Studios before serving in the United States Army Air Force during World War II. 

After eight years as an art professor at Sacramento Junior College, he joined the faculty of the University of California Davis, where he continued teaching for years after retiring at age 70.

His more than seven-decade career was largely centered in California, where he was first drawn to “the light, heat, agriculture, and middle-American ambiance” of the Sacramento area when stationed at Mather Air Force Base in the 1940s. His career took off in the early 1960s with enduringly-popular still lifes of desserts and cafeteria food rendered with thick impasto, followed by figure paintings, often evoking isolation against stark, light backgrounds.

From the 1970s, Thiebaud painted dizzying perspectives of San Francisco streets, aerial views of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and fields, lonely mountain scenes and later series depicting cartoon characters and clowns. His oeuvre also included illustration and works on paper.

“His canvases are some of the most important paintings ever made in California, and they possess an enduring interest, combining nostalgia and optimism, loneliness and isolation,” said Scott Shields, curator at the Crocker Art Museum, where the artist had his first solo exhibition in 1951.

Thiebaud's art evoked “a world of longing — a serene abundance that is always a windowpane away,” wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker.

He was a recipient of the National Medal of Arts (1994), the Gold Medal for Painting from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2017), the Lifetime Achievement Award for Art from the American Academy of Design, NY (2001) and he was inducted into The California Hall of Fame in 2010. 

Theibaud is predeceased by his second wife Betty Jean and his son Paul. He is survived by two daughters, a son and six grandchildren. Read obituaries in the Guardian and New York Times.

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