by Vatsala SethiNov 30, 2022
What comes to mind when someone utters the name Mickey Mouse? An unmistakable bright red and yellow picturisation of the iconic character, a posterised painting that has lived on through decades and been improvised in many ways by artists through the years. The reticent California-based artist whose playful depiction of the Disney character is iconic, is no more. Painter of sumptuous meals and everyday objects, events and places, Morton Wayne Thiebaud passed away on December 25, 2021, at his home in Sacramento. He was 101-years-old. He leaves behind an inspiring legacy and some dear memories with the people he mentored tirelessly through his life.
Although Thiebaud’s professional life saw him transitioning from a cartoonist and designer to a painter who explored myriad subjects ranging from portraits and landscapes to cityscapes and everyday life, he is most recognised for the cakes, candies, pies, lollipops and hot dogs that he lusciously painted in bold bright colours.
Soft-spoken, humble and a bit of a recluse, Thiebaud always shied away from putting himself in the limelight. His demise on Christmas day can perhaps be seen as an extension of his personality: leaving the party while the world was busy looking the other way!
Thiebaud’s niche as an artist was never defined by precise or scrupulous handiwork, but was instead characterised by a unique style that often discarded prominent bits and parts of the perceived scenery, while retaining the balanced geometries of his muses. Lying somewhere between abstract pieces of art and quirky documentations of the 20th century American lifestyle, his paintings can at once induce emotions of joy and gloom, thanks to the nostalgia that they prompt. Consequently, his work is often shelved under several categories, sometimes categorised as Pop Art and at other times, believed to resemble advertisement posters.
Although often labelled as a Pop Artist, neither Thiebaud nor his work ever ascribed to this allocation. While the Pop Art Movement of the 1950s was born to challenge the traditions of fine arts and characterised by visual reproductions of mass-produced objects and extant culture that were layered with satire and irony directed at consumerism, Thiebaud’s paintings, while utilising quotidian elements, were inspired by the visual beauty that he witnessed in cakes and pies and lollipops. Apart from the fact that Thiebaud’s works predate the Pop Art Movement, another factor that distinguished his work was the absence of the theme of satire that was the defining feature of Pop Art. Thiebaud chose the subjects of his paintings not to rebel against the traditional fine arts that were previously practiced, or to create art pieces that resembled the aesthetics of advertising, but he was, instead, drawn to the beauty of everyday objects. He liked the simple shapes and forms of these food items and found delight in the act of arranging and rearranging their individual pieces on plates and platters to make them look appetizing and aesthetic, much like a confectioner. In doing so, he took on the role of an orchestrator, distinguishing his work from the characteristic repetitiveness that defined the quirky art pieces by Andy Warhol or the exaggerated comic-style visuals by Roy Lichtenstein, both of whom were prominent Pop Artists.
Thiebaud was born in the year 1920 in Mesa, Arizona, United States, to Alice Eugenia, a telephonist and Morton Thiebaud, an inventor and motor executive. When Thiebaud was still an infant, his family moved to Long Island in Southern California, where he spent most of his early years, save for a few years at his uncle’s ranch in Utah, a move that was prompted by the Great Depression that marked an end to the Roaring 20s in the US. Thiebaud often attributed this short stay in Utah as the period that propelled his interest in art. His uncle, who was an amateur cartoonist, served both as an inspiration and a happy distraction from the mundane farm duties that Thiebaud was assigned on a daily basis throughout his stay in Utah. Later, on his return to his Long Island home, he worked on enhancing his artistic capabilities with courses on sign painting and part time jobs, sometimes as a sign painter, sometimes as an apprentice at Disney’s animation studio. Thiebaud’s work at the Disney studio required him to fill in the backgrounds of and the gaps between the Mickey Mouse characters, a role that later guided his career as a cartoonist and painter.
Thiebaud’s stint as a college student at the Long Beach Junior College was cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War. Although Thiebaud eschewed the idea of violence and wars, and heavily believed in social justice, the circumstances during this tenure drove him to work as an artist and cartoonist for the US Army Air Forces. His role transitioned from drawing comics and cartoon strips to later, sketching and painting out scenes for the First Motion Picture Unit, which was the film production unit of the US Army Air Forces during World War II. It was during this time that he got married to his first wife, Patricia Patterson, with whom he went on to have two children.
Thiebaud soon took up a job in the advertising department of the prominent medical drugstore operator, Rexall Drug Company, to fend for his growing family. Luckily, Thiebaud met Robert Mallary here, who went on to help him get his first show in 1962 at the Allan Stone Gallery, where Thiebaud’s Pieces of Pumpkin was first showcased.
The post war benefits suffused to war veterans allowed Thiebaud to move to Northern California, where he completed his bachelors and masters degrees and began a career as an arts teacher without worrying about the meagre financial offerings of the job. After brief stints at the Sacramento City College, Thiebaud began teaching at the University of California, Davis, and continued to do so for the next 40 years.
Thiebaud rose to prominence almost suddenly after his first show in 1962 at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York, thanks to people dubbing his work as Pop Art, a movement which was fast gaining the traction of both artists and admirers post the inception of industrialisation. Despite this erroneous labelling, Thiebaud continued to work in his own characteristic style well after the Pop Art Movement had become subdued, while also expanding his body of work, painting new subjects like the hills and landscapes of San Francisco and California, and portraits of both strangers and loved ones. This led to him breaking out of the narrow categorisation that his work was often shelved within and helped him redefine his distinct style as an artist and painter. While the Allan Stone Gallery went on to host at least 30 of his shows over the next few decades, several of Thiebaud’s works have also become parts of the permanent collections that occupy prominent museums like the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, amongst others.
His paintings are characteristically defined by heavy outlines that make the subjects in his pieces appear dramatic, while also giving them a classic Thiebaud appearance. This feature, referred to by Thiebaud as ‘halation’ or ‘rainbow colours’, was developed by him in the early 1960s while working on the painting of a pumpkin pie. Fearing that he had ruined the piece by erroneously painting outside the edges of the pies, Thiebaud decided to make the edges thicker and add a shimmering effect on them. The final painting, titled Pieces of Pumpkin went on to propel him into limelight in 1962 and later, sold for £1.6m in the year 2008.
Thiebaud often touted Willem de Kooning and Walt Disney as major inspirations in his work. As different as the two artists were, they pricked Thiebaud’s curiosity in a unique manner, helping him develop his evocative and distinct artistic style. In the mid 1950s, Thiebaud went to meet Kooning in New York during a short vacation. This brief encounter saw the two stalwarts discussing brushstrokes.
Apart from the boldly coloured food items that dominated his body of work, Thiebaud would also draw and paint portraits, the characters of Mickey Mouse, landscapes, cityscapes and mundane everyday events and objects. His paintings of everyday life in America were interesting accounts of the randomness that fills the daily lives of most people. Drawn with a certain sense of disconnection with the subjects, these paintings and sketches appear like visual documentations of a silent observer, a role that Thiebaud often took on while sketching these pieces.
An optimistic artist who envisioned change through his work during his younger years, Thiebaud later reiterated this thinking with a more pragmatic approach, believing that the role of art is to commemorate extant events and happenings rather than directly influence social change. He believed that works of art could go on to induce the consciousness of men and women and serve as the starting point of deeper thought and introspection. Following that train of thought, he went on to paint landscapes and everyday happenings that can later be viewed by individuals, keeping alive the yesteryear in all its variety.
Wayne Thiebaud is survived by his two daughters, Twinka and Mallary, his stepson Matt Bult, from his second marriage to Betty Jean Carr, and six grandchildren. A prominent name in the arts industry, Thiebaud straddled the 20th and 21st century with the same rigour, charm, enthusiasm and dedication to his work. He would regularly paint, even at the ripe old age of 100, and never wanted to stop practicing his vocation and passion.