This Tempting Wayne Thiebaud Watercolor Is the Perfect Summer Treat

Although he also produced pensive portraits and idyllic landscapes, the artist’s best-known images are of ice cream, cakes and other colorful sweets.
A watercolor painting of three double-scoop ice cream cones upright in a stand with, from left to right, brown ice cream, pink ice cream and yellow-green ice cream
Three Flavors, 1995, by Wayne Thiebaud

Plenty of artists have made food a great subject — think of Cézanne’s apples, innumerable Dutch still lifes and Arcimboldo’s fantastical portraits, in which fruits and vegetables literally add up to a man.

But in our own age, it was the late, great Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2021) who captured comestibles, especially sugary treats, in a way that turned the viewer into a kid again, excited to feast on a slice of pie or frosted cake. Coming of age as a painter in the 1950s and ’60s, Thiebaud had something of a Pop sensibility in terms of his painterly style. And it had wit, but he was not ironic. He liked food and thought you probably did too.

“Summer Days,” a new show of Thiebaud’s work now on view at Acquavella Galleries through June 14, features 31 of the artist’s paintings and pastels, including a portrait, a picture of a beach ball and a couple of seascapes, demonstrating that he did have other interests (especially warm-weather ones). But mostly, edibles are on this artistic menu, from a cheese plate to a hot dog. Several ice-cream pictures anchor the show, among them the charming 1995 watercolor Three Flavors.

A black-and-white photo of artist Wayne Thiebaud with some of his works in 1990
Thiebaud, seen here in 1990, is known for his painterly images of sweets. Photo by Matthew Bult

“This classic work by Wayne showcases his talent as a colorist and his love of painting familiar, everyday subject matter,” says Eleanor Acquavella, part of the third generation to run the family business, which long represented Thiebaud and now represents his estate. 

Ice cream had been one of the artist’s favorite and most acclaimed subjects since the early 1960s, though many viewers will be more familiar with the oil-painted depictions. Acquavella notes that Three Flavors demonstrates his versatility. “Though he has been widely celebrated for his use of texture and impasto in his oil paintings, he was also a master of the medium of watercolor,” she says.

Thiebaud had a 100-work retrospective at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum in 2020, and he painted up to the very end of his life (he was also still playing tennis at age 100). But he never stopped being a Depression-era kid who longed for abundance: Can you imagine three flavors, lined up in a row together in perfectly complementary colors? Nostalgia never tasted, or looked, so sweet.

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