Beyond Thiebaud’s expert choices in tone and shade, his paint application conjures much of the work’s visual punch. Thick impasto ensconces the donuts as if each pastry is vibrating the air in the scene. Each heavily loaded brush stroke projects from the surface of the painting, making each donut inviting and tangible. Paint colors are left separate on Thiebaud’s brush, leaving striations that help to showcase his dynamic range of gestural ability, and the artist’s signature is incised into the painting, underscoring this sense of dimensionality and textural variation.
Wayne Thiebaud was born in Arizona in 1920 and came of age in the Depression, an era marked by extreme scarcity and economic hardship. After spending time making comics as a teenager, Thiebaud was briefly employed as an animator before becoming a teacher and finally transitioning to the fine arts. By the 1960s, Thiebaud had gained widespread attention and acclaim for his orderly and regimented depictions of ordinary objects, especially pastries, that could be consumed by almost anyone, yet made somehow special through Thiebaud’s hand.
Compared to this early work, Three Donuts displays a naturalism and verisimilitude that makes it unique in his oeuvre. Throughout much of his early painting, Thiebaud had employed a system of positive and negative space, and grid-like organizational relationships that brought his work away from the realm of observation and into that of imagination. In this context of his early work, the donuts seem more lifelike, though they are commodities without context or place. There is a faint horizon line, but the donuts seem to inhabit a liminal space between store shelf and ether; they are inviting but inaccessible. Thiebaud draws on the quality of memory in this way: the donuts seem haphazard enough to appear observed, or at least based on life, but there is something uncanny in their obliqueness, as if they are drawn with the goal of depicting feeling and memory. Describing his painting, Thiebaud stated, “most of the objects are fragments of actual experience. For instance, I would really think of the bakery counter, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants, I can remember seeing rows of pies, or a tin of pie with one piece out of it and one pie sitting beside it. Those little vedute in fragmented circumstances were always poetic to me” (Wayne Thiebaud in John Arthur, Realists at Work, New York 1983, p. 120). Drawing partially from memory and partially from life, Three Donuts is nostalgic without becoming kitsch, projecting a sentimentality and genuine fondness. Through Thiebaud’s unique artistic vision, Three Donuts is a frank celebration of the everyday things that make life sweet.
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