WAYNE THIEBAUD (b. 1920) Camellia Cake, 1995
Lot 14
(b. 1920)
Camellia Cake, 1995
Sold for US$ 823,500 inc. premium

Post-War & Contemporary Art

16 May 2017, 16:00 EDT

New York

Lot Details
Camellia Cake, 1995

signed 'Thiebaud' (lower right); signed, titled and dated '"CAMELLIA CAKE" Thiebaud 1995' (on the reverse)
oil on panel

11 x 14 in.
27.9 x 35.6 cm


  • Provenance
    Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owners circa 1995.
    By descent from the above to the present owner.

    Napa, Napa Valley Museum, Napa Valley Collects 2013, 4 April-26 May 2013.

    Reminiscent of memories celebrating love, life, and experience, Wayne Thiebaud's confectionery portraits embody the warmth and comfort of an old friend and the sweetness of shared excitement and joy. As such, Thiebaud's Camellia Cake epitomizes his transformative powers of re-envisioning the commonplace into the extraordinary. Like many artists before him, Thiebaud concentrates on food as subject matter, urging the viewer to use a variety of senses, from taste, smell, touch, and sight, to aid in the recollection of past experience. From cakes, candy, hot dogs, pies and so on, Thiebaud's culinary focus mirrored a cultural shift within Post-War America. According to Sidra Stich, "Such foods are signatures of American culture, evidence of popular taste as well as culinary customs, eating habits and skill in advertising and marketing. With postwar proliferation of brand-name promotions, convenience foods, fast-food chains, national distribution networks, and giant supermarkets, food became a paramount part of America's image."1 Emphasizing the power of nostalgia and memory through sumptuously applied paint, Thiebaud seems to wash away any semblance of distance or distortion of memory. His works bring out a richness of experience and warmth seemingly emanating from within. The artist notes on his subject matter, "a genuine sort of experience that came out of my life, particularly the American world in which I was privileged to be. It just seemed to be the most genuine thing which I had done."2

    Born in 1920 and having spent his childhood in both Southern and Central California, Thiebaud had expressed an early and innate interest in the arts, most particularly with regards to draftsmanship and illustration. As a young man, Thiebaud held many jobs in an effort to hone his talents, including spending time as an apprentice with the Walt Disney Studios, an advertisement card letterer, and a draftsman. After serving for a brief time in the Air Force during World War II, Thiebaud worked as a commercial artist for several years before making a commitment to further explore his interest in painting. He began his formal artistic studies at San Jose State University, then California State University at Sacramento, where he completed both undergraduate and graduate degrees in studio art and art education. Sharing his talent as an educator, Thiebaud pushed his practice as well as guided his students to truly understand the dynamism of the basics within painting: line, color and form. He urged his students to revisit the works of great artistic masters of varying genres of art history, from Johannes Vermeer, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and Thomas Eakins, who were pioneers in the Realist tradition of painting, to those of Post-Impressionist prowess like Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, whose interpretations of the world around them began to unearth the true possibilities of painting.

    In the late 1950s, Thiebaud began to paint scenes that captured a slice of the celebratory – a birthday or an anniversary – something that signified a moment etched within collective minds. The cakes, candies and sandwiches for which he is best known would evolve into a recurring theme throughout his lengthy career, suggestive of the artist's deep tie to his thematic choice and associative sentiments. His layered experimentation, painting cake after cake and memory-inducing morsels, presents a unique opportunity to the viewer, one where repetition reveals key aspects of the artist's practice.

    By 1960, the wartime practice of rationing was replaced with consumptive agency and indulgences of modernization. Desserts like Camellia Cake were no longer a distant memory. Stich describes the American palette as one "surfeit of sucrose splendor", where indulging in the celebratory meal once reserved for special times was made all the more frequent by modernization.3 Stich continues, "These are the in-between-meal and after-dinner bonuses of a prosperous society that enjoys the luxury of eating well, often, plentifully, and extravagantly. The seductive displays also articulate the bonds between prosperity, mass marketing, and consumerism."4

    At this time, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg were similarly focused on confections within their artistic practice. Many have viewed the sugary imagery that came from Oldenburg, Lichtenstein and Thiebaud's confectionery subject matter as derisive popular symbols of mass-consumption in American society, with wartime constraints fully in the past and the palpable need to project affluence and abundance at the forefront of public consciousness. This sociopolitical reading of popular culture and American consumerism at the time is simply one-sided, however, and Thiebaud stresses that such scenes should be first read as nostalgia-inducing rather than contemptuous.

    Each artist explored this theme to achieve their own ends, further unpacking varying facets of artistic production. For Thiebaud, it was light and color, whereas for Lichtenstein, it was optical manipulation of Ben-Day dots and for Oldenburg it was the substitution of traditional materials for repurposed and uncommon mediums. Lichtenstein's tart cherry red dots and Oldenburg's pillowy plush cake slice play upon different senses, however it is Thiebaud's cake that represents true sustenance. Curator and author Karen Tsujimoto notes "By some alchemy... Thiebaud does not seem to be working with oil at all, but with a substance composed of flour, albumen, butter and sugar."5

    Camellia Cake is a delectable example of Thiebaud's exploration of what color and line can achieve. One can almost taste the chocolate frosting - the surface is slightly filmed, sugar crystallizing to a very delicate crunch the longer the dish remains uneaten. Although this subject matter is sweet and somewhat straightforward, Thiebaud's approach to painting is the opposite: one centralized on the importance of balance and testing the formal qualities of painterly practice, most particularly the use of line, color, composition, shape and texture. As Oldenburg plays with texture and Lichtenstein toys with the limits of line and repetition, Thiebaud's works can be seen as a combination of explorations he has undertaken throughout his career. Thiebaud's unexpected way of capturing the texture and appearance of Camellia Cake reveals both his background as a draftsman in his adept use of line, as well as a colorist, in his remarkable use of contrasting hues as he spreads thick brushstrokes of impasto across the canvas. This textured surface reveals itself as a moist coating, with a slight sticky sheen along the edges of the frosting. His brush mimics that of a spatula, smoothing the curved wall of cake as a baker would delicately do on a revolving cake stand.

    To his credit, Thiebaud's astonishing brushwork reveals the tension between symbolism and abstraction - positioning the viewer in front of a singular angle yet presenting multiple vantage points – layering bands of prismatic color as if light was refracting at each crisp line. When asked about the strong role that light plays in determining form in his works, Thiebaud remarked, "the light is created by way of creating energy, by the juxtaposition of colors and the interaction of those colors to create light quite different from the modulation of volumetric rendering."6 He continues to note that "It's not what we refer to as natural light, but it's a kind of eternal light, or symbolic light, or light that is sustained by the energy of the interaction of color." 7

    Overall, Thiebaud's work is as visually stimulating as Expressionism and as culturally poignant as Pop, however it is only when we look back to the exacting and exquisite history of still life painting that we truly see the depth and control he has mastered as an artist. Influenced by the complex compositions of American still life painting from the mid-nineteenth century, Thiebaud's ability to bend both line and light add to his adept handling of geometric shapes, pushing his work outside categorical norms. As such, some have argued that he is an artist that transcends his time. John Wilmerding argues, "Perhaps the real issue that confounds critics is Thiebaud's independence of style and vision. He is possibly the only, and certainly the foremost, artist in recent modern art to fuse seamlessly essential aspects of the two major artistic developments over the last half-century: the expressive brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and the commercial realism of Pop art. What some see as a weakness is arguably a unique strength – his art eludes easy placement in standard art categories."8

    Throughout his body of work, Thiebaud's attention to detail has been striking yet altogether modern, his rendering of commonplace items underscoring the elemental beauty he truly sees in our day and age. Thiebaud best expresses his thoughts, noting, "It was somehow important to me to be honest in what we do, and to love what it is we paint. These were lessons given to me by other artists, obviously. To do what you love, or are interested in, or have some regard for. And it seems to me that it's easy to overlook what we spend our majority of time doing, and that's an intimate association with everyday things: putting on our shoes, tying our ties, eating our breakfast, cooking our meals, washing our dishes. Somehow that ongoing human activity seems to me very much worth doing."9 Despite unearthing universal memories that are at the core of our identity and culture, no other artist has been able to reflect a life full of optimism and sentimentality. Thiebaud naturally captures a slice of the American experience, transferring the viewer into a family's kitchen with the counter top dusted in sugar and 'Happy Birthday' edging closer towards the tips of their lips.

    1. S. Stich, "American Food and American Marketing", in MADE IN U.S.A.: An Americanization in Modern Art, The '50s & '60s, Berkeley, 1987, p. 77.
    2. S. A. Nash, "Unbalancing Acts: Thiebaud Reconsidered", in Wayne Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective, New York, 2000, p. 18.
    3. S. Stich, p. 77.
    4. Ibid.
    5. K. Tsujimoto, Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1985, p. 46.
    6. W. Thiebaud, quoted in "Object Lessons", in ARTnews, New York, 2011, http://www.artnews.com/2011/11/08/object-lessons/.
    7. Ibid.
    8. J. Wilmerding, "Wayne Thiebaud: 'The Emperor of Ice Cream'", in Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., New York, Acquavella Gallery, 2012, p. 11.
    9. W. Thiebaud, quoted in "Wayne Thiebaud Interview: Painter and Teacher, Celebrating the Joy of Living," Academy of Achievement, Sacramento, 2011, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/thi0int-1.
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