Celebrating America’s pastries in paint

“Around the Cake,” oil painting by Wayne Thiebaud, copyright.

     For thousands of years, one thing has brought people together; a common bond that crosses the boundaries of culture and generations.  This common bond is food, and thousands of artists have celebrated food in still-life paintings and scenes of people dining.  

     One American painter’s most famous paintings feature America’s most commonplace foods.  Wayne Thiebaud (born Nov. 15, 1920) (last name pronounced “Tee-bo”) is interested in painting everyday objects that are part of our culture, including the paintings of pies and cakes for which he is best known. 

     Thiebaud began painting pastries around the end of 1959.  He had been painting windows, store counters, and gumball machines, and began to be interested in formal composition.  (Formal balance means that the artist tries to give equal weight or importance to both sides of the center of the work.)  “I tried to see if I could get an object to sit on a plane and really be very clear about it,” he says.  “I picked things like pies and cakes — things based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles — and tried to orchestrate them.” 

     He had experience in advertising design, which he used to develop his new paintings.  His painting technique features heavy pigment, exaggerated colors, and well-defined shadows, and he brought these methods into his paintings of food.  What most appealed to him was the type of food found in cafeterias:  cakes, pies, ice cream, hamburgers, hot dogs, club sandwiches, etc.  All of these items can be found anywhere in the country — but only in this country.  .   

     Thiebaud commented, “When I painted the first row of pies, I can remember sitting and laughing — sort of a silly relief — ‘Now I have flipped out!’….I did one and thought, ‘That’s really crazy, but no one is going to look at these things anyway, so what the heck.’”

     As it turned out, people DID look at his paintings.  The enthusiasm that greeted his still lifes when they were exhibited in New York in 1962, and later that year in San Francisco, reflects their strength and appeal.  Thiebaud uses controlled light and careful, slow brushstrokes to model the forms.  His well-thought-out paintings of pies, cakes, and other mass culture objects invite the viewer to look carefully; the pictures have delicate, varied effects achieved with what seem to be minimal means.

     Many “experts” have written about the possible meanings of Thiebaud’s still-life subjects, beyond their purely visual pleasures and the problems of formal composition that they pose.  Thiebaud himself warns against reading too much into their symbolism.  He says that he’s never been clear in his own mind about any symbolic meaning in his work.  He views each painting as an exercise in solving the problems of representing certain kinds of forms in paint.  But he has also indicated that the foods he paints again and again have an emotional meaning for him related to his boyhood memories of growing up in America.  His paintings of food are made from mental images in his memory, not from actual setups of food or other objects. 

     When he painted his famous pictures of bakery counters, he says, “I would really think of the bakery counter, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience.  From when I worked in restaurants, I can remember seeing rows of pies, or a tin of pie with one piece out of it and one pie sitting beside it.  Those little scenes were always poetic to me.”

“Pies, Pies, Pies,” oil, Wayne Thiebaud, copyright

     He points out that the foods in his pictures are always processed, not raw.  He has an interest in the way we almost make a ritual out of preparing certain foods.  His paintings also draw on his memories of family picnics, his time working in restaurants, and the displays of food and consumer goods he admired in drugstores, bakeries and hardware stores.  Unlike Pop Art, which satirizes mass production and advertising, Thiebaud’s work shows an honest appreciation for parts of our American experience that have been slowly disappearing over the years.  He celebrates the American world, and says himself that these paintings are the most genuine work he has ever done. 

     In addition to pastries, Thiebaud paints landscapes, streetscapes, and people.  His recent paintings are noted for being hyper-realistic, reminiscent in some ways of the work of Edward Hopper (an artist who was also fascinated with ordinary scenes from everyday American life).  Thiebaud notes that commonplace objects are constantly changing, and when he paints the things he remembers, he is making a record of what we were.  He says, “For example, the pies that we now see are not going to be around forever.  We are merely used to the idea that things do not change.”

Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Cupboard Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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