Contemporary Variations on the Still Life

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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In the early 1960s the California artist Wayne Thiebaud began painting cakes, pies, and slices of American food culture to create an iconic and widely loved body of work. Well aware of predecessors like Chardin, Cézanne, and Manet, Thiebaud reinvigorated the still life with spare arrangements of desserts that were lushly described, with thick impasto mimicking frosting. Thiebaud was drawn to the simple geometries of commercial baked goods and the patterns created when these attractive sweets were offered up for sale in rows or grids at a bakery counter. Like Chardin, he was also following an interest in the everyday—here, distinctly American confections from his childhood, painted from memory—while also imparting a nobility, tinged with longing, to his commonplace subject. Thiebaud’s influential work, exemplified by his 1963 Cakes, speaks to the abundance and formal beauty of expanding American consumer culture and the desire it stoked.