“It’s such a seductive enterprise to paint a river, the reflections, the prettiness of it, and so on” (W. Thiebaud quoted in S. McGough, Thiebaud Selects Thiebaud: A Forty-Year Survey from Private Collections, exh. cat., Sacramento, 1996, p. 12)
Drawn in 2000, Levees and Dikes (Green River turn) is an exquisite example of Wayne Thiebaud’s mastery of medium, composition, color and light. The soft mint green glow of the winding river dramatically defines the composition drawing in the viewer to consider the contrasting linear patterns of the surrounding farmlands. With pops of fiery red, vibrant yellow, electric blue, deep purple and soft orange composing the orderly rows of agricultural crops seen from an elevated perspective, Thiebaud creates a kaleidoscopic tableau which simultaneously incorporates the artist’s observations of reality and relays the essence of the scene to the viewer.
Most well-known for luscious still life depictions of sweets and cakes, Thiebaud has also considered the landscape in depth throughout his artistic career. In the 1970s and 1980s depictions of the vertiginous streets of San Francisco featured prominently in his output; the river deltas became a focus starting in the 1990s. In the mid 1990s, Thiebaud began taking his easel to the levees of the Sacramento River to sketch en plein air. Gathering his impressions of the river and its surroundings at varying times of the day and in different seasons, he would return to his studio and combine his observations to create his ultimate compositions “For me it is about remembrance – sketching certain types of reflected patterns, different kinds of lighting, then conjuring it up with your memory and imagination.” (W. Thiebaud quoted in “Sweet Home California” NYT, 29 sept 2010 by Patricia Leigh Brown).
The success of Thiebaud’s approach to these later landscapes is not only based on his efforts to relay a composite of his personal experiences in the setting, but is primarily due to an underlying academic approach which includes a careful consideration of the composition’s formative elements and an astute reverence for his art historic predecessors. "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...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" (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Painting Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 33). In Levees and Dikes (Green River Turn) we experience a 16th century Pieter Breughel-esque bird’s-eye-view and a nod to the sweeping grandeur of 19th Century Albert Bierstadt paintings of the American West. The scene is presented with a ladder-like horizon-less stacked composition prevalent in traditional Chinese painting. And, arguably the most recognizable aspect of Thiebaud’s work: the daring use of color, an undeniable homage to the Fauvists like Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse and Impressionist painters like Claude Monet. Color permeates every aspect of the landscape; even shadows are captured in varying shades of intense blue. A lifelong teacher, it is not surprising that these art historical greats have made an impact on Thiebaud's approach.
Close examinations of Levees and Dikes (Green River Turn) reveal an intense vibration in its composition. Just as Thiebaud is drawn to the abstract components of pie slices, the same appreciation for shape, pattern and texture is found here. The geometric shapes of the agricultural crops contrast with the swooping curves of the river. Impossible varying perspectives fight for attention. Fiery foliage basks in the serene glow of the green river. Tension is even found in the way in which Thiebaud employs the pastel medium – soft blended patches of pastel fall alongside thick confident strokes. In his distinctive style, Thiebaud unifiees all of this electric energy under the golden glow of the California Sunshine. “Part of the problem of art is to compete, exactly and very specially with the real world. One must look at it and not be bored, not be put off. I like to think that… my paintings… create their own light and their own energy.” (W. Thiebaud in A. LeGrace, G. Benson, D. H. R. Shearer, An Interview with Wayne Thiebaud, Leonardo, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1969), pp. 65-72).