Wayne Thiebaud - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | Phillips

  • "These landscapes are fanciful yet grounded…Thiebaud has entered the time-space continuum of Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman using landscape as his vehicle instead of abstraction."
    —Allan Stone

    Lyrical and vertiginous, real and imagined, Wayne Thiebaud’s Winding River encapsulates the artist’s longstanding reverence for the Sacramento River Delta in California. An arresting example of the artist’s Delta paintings, Winding River marks a critical juncture in the artist’s ambition towards this body of work by its monumental scale and is among the largest of Thiebaud’s riverscapes. Immersing the viewer into an expansive vista, upon closer inspection, thick bold strokes at once curve with the movement of the river and straighten with the organized rows of crops as the fantastically rich Impressionist and Fauvist tones infuse the scene with a gleaming tranquility. Capturing a sinuous river meandering through the agricultural valleys of the California landscape, Winding River situates Thiebaud within the rich lineage of contemporary painters who found their muse in America’s Golden State, while showcasing his mastery of referencing myriad sources from the art historical tradition in his virtuosic handling and singular painterly language.


    David Hockney, Nichols Canyon, 1980. Private Collection, Sold Phillips New York, December 2020 for $41,067,500. Artwork: © David Hockney Foundation

    A striking departure from his San Francisco cityscapes, Thiebaud’s captivating riverscapes are drawn from the artist’s early life experiences farming in Southern Utah and his boyhood memories of living on his grandfather’s farm. “I plowed, harrowed, dug, and hitched up teams....and planted and harvested alfalfa, potatoes, corn,” Thiebaud recalled. “It was a great way to grow up. These paintings have something to do with the love of that and in some ways the idea of replicating that experience.”i Although the artist turned to portraying the Sacramento River Delta beginning in the late 1990s, his sustained interest in the subject has become a lifelong endeavor continuing through the present day. Much like his well-known still lifes of delicious confections, his rural landscapes of California emanate a sense of nostalgia and an embrace of Americana, but stand apart from Thiebaud’s baked treats by conjuring the serenity of nature undisturbed. He described of his painterly relationship to landscape, “In addition to representing forms like rocks, trees, or riverbanks, the manipulation of paint can be made to build and carve the forms in bas-relief, creating a kind of painted sculpture.”ii 


    Wayne Thiebaud, Flatland River, 1997. San Francisco Museum of Art, Artwork: © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Thiebaud’s New Perspective


    On the series comprising the present work, his son Paul Thiebaud elucidated that the larger scale “had introduced several challenging new ideas. This suggested, perhaps, the idea of a series that could explore more fully some of these discoveries.”iii Describing the development he had seen as his father embarked on the six paintings, Thiebaud’s son reflected, “Each was, in fact, unique, guiding the artist along a path of idiosyncrasy leading to the power of their individuality. They were ever-changing in a chameleon-like frenzy…I watched as horizons asserted themselves one week only to disappear the next, as geometry was replaced with lyricism only to go back on itself later, and as tension was swept away at one stage and reintroduced at the next and so on.”iv As Scott Shield observed, “It’s almost like he’s tending the fields with his brushwork, echoing the shape of the cultivated land.”v 
    "Despite the internal tension in these works, Thiebaud managed to keep their different visual elements in register, so that we see each picture as a unified whole. For historical precedents, one might invoke Cézanne’s analysis of landscape through shifting planes of color and light, the brilliant improvisations on nature by the Fauves, the planar distortions and spatial disruptions of early Cubist landscapes, or, for the use of multiple perspective, the great tradition of Asian landscape painting."
    —Steven A. Nash

    [left] Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley, 1882-1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [right] Wu Li, Travelers Among Streams and Mountains, ca. 1670s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


    Speaking of his large body of riverscapes inspired by the Sacramento Delta, Thiebaud explained, “The idea of taking on the later delta pictures had quite a different idea...The San Francisco pictures being a kind of composite of several different things at once. I thought: I wonder if we can do that with landscapes, in a sense. I'd been going to the Metropolitan, looking at Chinese painting, the way in which that perspective is so different.”vi Marking the achievement of Thiebaud’s investigations on coalescing various invented perspectives into a cohesive character, the present work recalls the tradition of Chinese landscape painting that Thiebaud had seen while embodying his much deeper sensibility on the relational dynamics between subject and object, exteriority and interiority. “I was intrigued by what I could do to try to get some kind of image or self-relationship, which I hadn't seen so much,” he expressed. “As a consequence, I tried to steal every kind of idea—Western, Eastern—and the use of everything I could think of—atmospheric perspective, size differences, color differences, overlapping, exaggeration, linear perspective, planal and sequential recessions—and to do that with the kind of vision I talked about before, with as many ways of seeing in the same picture—clear forms, hazy, squinting, glancing, staring and even a sort of inner seeing.”vii


    A Sensuous, Seasonal Palette

    "By employing colors as if they possess varying temperatures, a painter is enabled to work with warm values and cool tones, as with fire and ice."
    —Wayne Thiebaud 

    [left] Pierre Bonnard, Landscape in the South, 1943. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY, Artwork: © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris [right] Henri Matisse, Corsicon Landscape, 1898. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Artwork: © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Synthesizing a striking range of contrasting tonalities into a chromatic symphony, Thiebaud orchestrates a sense of atmosphere that exudes light from the canvas through pure color as Claude Monet had done with his landscapes of the French countryside. In the present work, Thiebaud’s displays a psychedelic fusion of Post-Impressionist verve, not least by alluding to Vincent van Gogh’s sprawling fields but just as much in palette, recalling the artist’s admiration for Pierre Bonnard as well as Henri Matisse’s Corsicon Landscape, 1898. Displaying Thiebaud’s signature halo effect, Winding River showcases the glowing hue along the river contrasted with both muted and vibrant pastel tones that render the trees and plains. This technique lends itself to the vibrant, staccato pulsations throughout the composition that work together with the melancholic pastel hues to emanate a sensuous, serene sense of nostalgia. At the same time, it also showcases how Thiebaud adeptly composites various seasons and times of day within a single image to instill the character of nature into the painting. As he explained, “Going out on the delta on those levies and looking, making direct paintings, some drawings....The only added thing was to think a little bit more about the experience in that world. Various seasons, for instance. Sometimes you'd get this very brown, black, dark, baren atmosphere and environment. And then spring, of course, you get these great spring greens and the sort of flourishing, almost flower-like colors of the crops, the yellows and oranges. So the pictures try in some way to anthologize or balance, bring that together.”viii


    Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

    Orchestrating Nature’s Tempo 

    "The delta of the Sacramento River. It is a landscape almost Tuscan in its human articulation of terraces and farmed fields...[Thiebaud] builds a kaleidoscopic variety of shapes: striped furrows and striated fans, hot pink parallelograms and S-curves, magenta trapezoids locked into high violet-green cypresses...The linear pattern of furrows and crop striations and ditches adds an incised, wild, nearly Op-art element to what had been before, essentially, a classical language."
    —Adam Gopnik

    [left] Vincent van Gogh, Detail of Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Image: HIP / Art Resource, NY [right] Richard Diebenkorn, Untitled Landscape, 1957. Richard Diebenkorn Foundation, Berkeley, Artwork: © 2021 Richard Diebenkorn

    In Thiebaud’s view, “Various kinds of brushes containing paint that physically smear, dart, swipe, drag, crawl, or hesitate can suggest an orchestrated composition of movement, rhythm, and tempo.”ix Through the dynamic interplay between striking impasto, bold curving lines and monosyllabic strokes, the present work manifests a visual tension between realism and abstraction, simultaneously evoking Thomas Cole’s reverent American landscapes and the abstracted Californian landscapes of Thiebaud’s contemporary, Richard Diebenkorn. By suggesting the sensuous surfaces of his pastries into his rendering of the vast American terrain, Winding River presents Thiebaud’s Sacramento Delta as a vision of the sublime that is entirely his own. In the artist’s words, “I no longer wish to invest the landscape with total pictorial content, but, if at all possible, I want to replicate those natural forces into the nature of the paint...I would be able to give the painting, in terms of abstraction and compositional power, the same kind of internalized structure of the nature of the landscape.”x 



    Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 33.
    ii Ibid.
    iii Paul LeBaron Thiebaud, Wayne Thiebaud: Riverscapes, exh. cat., Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco (and traveling), 2002, n.p.
    iv Ibid.
    v Scott Shields, quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, “Closer Look: A Riverscape, From Higher Ground,” The New York Times, October 3, 2010, online.
    vi Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Susan Larsen, “Oral History Interview with Wayne Thiebaud,” transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., May 17, 2001.
    vii Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 33.
    viii Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Susan Larsen, “Oral History Interview with Wayne Thiebaud,” transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., May 17, 2001.
    ix Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 33.
    x Wayne Thiebaud, quoted in Andrée Maréchal-Workman, “Wayne Thiebaud: Beyond the Cityscapes,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 1987, p. 39.

    • Provenance

      Allan Stone Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002

    • Exhibited

      San Francisco, Paul Thiebaud Gallery; New York, Allan Stone Gallery; London, Faggionato Fine Arts, Wayne Thiebaud: Riverscapes 2002, October 29, 2002 – May 24, 2003, n.p. (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Karen Wilkin, Kenneth Baker, Nicholas Fox Weber, and John Yau, Wayne Thiebaud, New York, 2015, pl. 167, p. 276 (illustrated, p. 277)

Property from a Private American Collection


Winding River

signed and dated "♡ Thiebaud '02" upper right
acrylic on canvas
72 x 60 1/8 in. (182.9 x 152.7 cm)
Painted in 2002.

Full Cataloguing

$6,000,000 - 8,000,000 

Sold for $9,809,000

Contact Specialist

Amanda Lo Iacono
Head of Auctions
New York
+1 212 940 1278


20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 23 June 2021