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Wayne Thiebaud, celebrated American painter, dies age 101

<i>Album/Zuma Press</i><br/>Thiebaud's 1969 oil painting
Album/Zuma Press
Thiebaud's 1969 oil painting "Row of Ties."

Oscar Holland, CNN | Joe Sutton, CNN and Carma Hassan, CNN

Artist Wayne Thiebaud, whose paintings breathed color into the everyday symbols of post-war America, has died age 101, according to a statement from the University of California, Davis, where he taught for more than 40 years.

Known for his vibrant depictions of ordinary life — from pastries and pies to delicatessen counters and diners — the painter died Saturday, the statement said, without naming the cause of his death.

“Wayne Thiebaud had a profound and lasting influence on our university, but his legacy transcends UC Davis,” said the college’s chancellor, Gary S. May. “He was beloved as an artist, professor, mentor, father, grandfather, philanthropist and community leader.

“He was a brilliant artist, and his work will forever encourage us to see our world in a more textural light, where common objects can ascend to profound and iconic heights.”

Born in Mesa, Arizona in 1920, Thiebaud was raised in California, where he would spend most of his life. With no formal artistic training, he worked as a sign-painter and Walt Disney Studios apprentice before serving with the US Air Force in World War II.

In the late 1940s, he left commercial art and advertising to study fine art at California State University in Sacramento. Usually painting from memory, he spent the following decade developing a signature candy-colored style, gaining increased commercial recognition in the 1960s.

If Thiebaud’s subjects were seemingly ordinary, his execution was anything but. Pinball machines and delicatessen counters came alive with exaggerated colors; the icing on his iconic cakes and doughnuts were rendered with thick, enticing brushstrokes.

Though he came to prominence in the Pop Art era, he distanced himself from the movement. Indeed, while his distinctive use of dark shadows was reminiscent of the era’s advertising displays, the painter’s explorations of mass culture were channeled through a warm figurative realism that stood apart from more satirical contemporaries like Andy Warhol.

Thiebaud also had a long teaching career, serving as an art professor at Sacramento Junior College before joining UC Davis. Retiring from academia age 70, he continued to deliver classes at the latter college in his role as professor emeritus.

“Wayne Thiebaud believed teaching and learning were life’s most important pursuits,” said Rachel Teagle, founding director of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. “He loved to read, discuss, and look together with his students. ‘Painting is a team sport,’ he liked to say. And for his many, many lifelong students, learning with Wayne was a great honor.”

Recent years have seen surging market interest in Thiebaud’s art. In November 2019, the bakery-inspired painting “Encased Cakes” set a new auction record for his work when it sold for more than $8.4 million at Sotheby’s in New York. The following year, just months before Thiebaud turned 100, his 1962 painting “Four Pinball Machines” more than doubled that record, fetching over $19.1 million at Christie’s auction house.

Even in his later years, Thiebaud spent “most days in the studio,” according to New York’s Acquavella Galleries, which has staged four exhibitions of his work since 2012. In a condolence message posted to its Instagram account Sunday, the gallery described him as a “truly remarkable man.”

“An American icon, Wayne led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis, and above all, making art,” the message read.

Other tributes to the painter poured in Sunday, from the art world and beyond. In a media statement, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the artist’s death.

“From gumball machines to the landscapes of San Francisco, he transformed everyday life into an iconic statement of color and form,” read the statement, adding: “Wayne Thiebaud was the pride of California, and a great gift to the world.”

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