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Music, Arts & Culture

Wayne Thiebaud, Sacramento artist known for his colorful depictions of everyday life, dies at age 101

Wayne Thiebaud speaks onstage at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Gala at Jackson Park Ranch on September 15, 2018 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Thiebaud died Saturday at the age of 101.
Rich Polk
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Getty Images
Wayne Thiebaud speaks onstage at the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation Gala at Jackson Park Ranch on September 15, 2018 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Thiebaud died Saturday at the age of 101.

The artist explored everything from pastries to cityscapes in his work. Paintings, he once told NPR, can be "powerful statements about the sort of astounding capacity of the human mind."

Delectable pastries. A still life of a deli counter. A chorus line of red, pink and orange lipsticks. Pastel city-scapes and landscapes. Wayne Thiebaud's colorful depictions of everyday life made him one of America's most beloved painters. Thiebaud died at his home in Sacramento on Saturday. He was 101 years old.

His death was announced by his gallery, Acquavella.

"It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of a truly remarkable man, Wayne Thiebaud," the gallery said in a statement. "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.'"

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Wayne Thiebaud
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Courtesy of Crocker Art Museum
Boston Cremes


Born in Mesa, Ariz. and raised in southern California, Thiebaud was a lover of comic strips, cartoons and clowns in his early years. He apprenticed as an animator for Walt Disney Studios before serving in the Army during World War II.

Thiebaud's work has been exhibited in major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Smithsonian. The artist, who once used the phrase "brush dances" to describe his work to NPR, was also a lifelong professor, first at Sacramento Junior College and then the University of California, Davis.

A tireless student of painting himself, Thiebaud spoke to NPR in 2001 about why the experience of looking at art was so meaningful to him.

Flood Waters, 2006/2013, Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.
/ Acquavella Galleries
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Acquavella Galleries
Flood Waters, 2006/2013, Art © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.

"You are able to enter the world of Van Gogh or enter the world of these painters who offer us alternate worlds," he said. "They are not God's world, they are man's world. And they may be fictions, but they're also powerful statements about the sort of astounding capacity of the human mind."

CapRadio most recently interviewed the founder of Davis’ Manetti Shrem Museum and the Crocker’s executive director about their respective Thiebaud exhibits.

Former student Vonn Cummings Sumner, who participated in the Shrem exhibit, told CapRadio that Thiebaud focused on bringing empathy into his work, and making art that was available for everyone.

"Wayne was so great at emphasizing that art is also about life. It should matter to our daily existence," Sumner said. "It's not some ivory tower thing that only exists for artists to look at, but that it should be accessible and available to connect with anybody."

Sacramentans are remembering Thiebaud on social media.

Liv Moe, executive director of the Verge Center for the Arts, wrote that she “woke up to the news that Thiebaud passed. Wayne was one of my favorite teachers, showing me how to translate what I see to the page, something I could hardly do before. Our last exchange was so pleasant & I’m sad Covid kept us apart these past two years. RIP Wayne.”

Mayor Darrell Steinberg: “Wayne Thiebaud was not only a brilliant artist but a wonderful man who remained devoted to Sacramento and its surrounding landscapes despite the pull of fame and fortune. His was a life well lived. We will miss him.”

Los Angeles Times editor John Myers called Thiebaud “a Sacramento treasure. The capital city has lost two of its most iconic, creative forces — Wayne Thiebaud and Joan Didion — in a matter of days.”

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby: “101 years… what an incredible life. Thank you Wayne Thiebaud for giving @TheCityofSac so much beauty.”

Thiebaud's work is currently the subject of a traveling retrospective organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif. Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings is on view at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas through Jan. 16, 2022.

Thiebaud's second wife Betty Jean died in 2015. His son Paul died in 2010. He is survived by two daughters, a son and six grandchildren.

Copyright 2021 NPR/Copyright 2021 CapRadio