Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)

Happy Birthday

Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)
Happy Birthday
signed 'Thiebaud 62' (lower right)
oil on canvas
18 x 24 in. (45.7 x 61 cm.)
Painted in 1962.
Allan Stone Gallery, New York
Galleria Schwarz, Milan
Georges Marci Gallery, Gstaad
Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf
John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, 1982
Private collection, United States, 1983
Milan, Galleria Schwarz, Wayne Thiebaud, June-July 1963, n.p. (illustrated).
L'Aquila, Castello Cinquecentesco, Aspetti Dell'Arte Contemporanea, July-October 1963, p. 148, no. 271 (illustrated).
San Francisco, John Berggruen Gallery, Selected Acquisitions, September-October 1982.
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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis

Lot Essay

Displaying a sense of nostalgia that belies the extraordinary complexity of the artist’s technique, Wayne Thiebaud’s Happy Birthday Cakes is a quintessential example of his early series of cakes, pies and other sugary confections he painted in the early 1960s. Painted in 1962, the same year as the artist’s breakthrough solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York, Happy Birthday Cakes illustrates what has come to be regarded as Thiebaud’s most significant theme, here rendered as two celebratory pieces of patisserie. These joyful creations demonstrate the particular brand of Pop art that propelled Thiebaud to critical acclaim in these early years and the resulting paintings of cakes, pies, hot dogs, delicatessen meats, and ice cream cones remain among the most cherished objects in the history of Pop art. Taking the classic vanilla birthday cake as his theme, Thiebaud touches upon the abundance of postwar American consumerism and the era of optimism that prevailed during the early Kennedy years. Whereas Thiebaud’s New York counterparts infused Pop art with an ironic detachment that bordered on aloofness, Thiebaud did the opposite, steering clear of irony in favor of unabashed joy. Thiebaud’s cakes in particular, evoke the essence of that which they describe, acting as delightful reminders of life’s simple pleasures and the everyday rituals that define our lives.

In Happy Birthday Cakes, Thiebaud delights in his presentation of the two identical cakes, where thick, rich impasto lovingly describes the brightly-colored buttercream decorations of each cake. Thiebaud transforms oil paint into luscious evocations of frosted decorations, rendered in cheerful, candy-colored hues. A pale band of yellow icing has been piped around the top edge of the cake, encircling the simple message written in bright blue letters: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY,” the cakes proclaim, in glorious, technicolor script. The sides of each cake are festooned with garlands of orange buttercream and capped with pale green rosettes, while the top of each cake is adorned with a single sugar-icing rose surrounded by bright, green leaves. The cloying sweetness of the scene is offset by the precision, rigor and flawless execution of the piece, where each cake displays its decorative piping in mirror-like exactitude.

These “twin” cakes exemplify the abundance, ease and resourcefulness of 1950s and 60s America, where the average suburban housewife need no longer bake a cake from scratch, but instead purchase one at the local A&P. Indeed, the cakes are presented upon an empty background that recalls the softly-lit aura of a bakery case or refrigerator shelf, where the cakes linger in a tantalizing state of utter perfection, each awaiting the moment its purpose might be fulfilled. As if to accentuate their importance, Thiebaud presents the cakes from a semi-aerial view, so that the viewer seems to peer upward toward the cakes from a lower vantage point, not unlike a child standing on his tiptoes in order to catch a glimpse of his own cake before it is served.

In the early 1960s, Thiebaud’s paintings of American foods brought him critical acclaim as one of the leading figures of the new Pop art movement. A selection debuted at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1962, an exhibition which proved to be a launching ground for Thiebaud’s mature work (Museum of Modern Art acquired one of Thiebaud’s paintings from the Allan Stone show). Thiebaud developed the technique of isolating his subject and situating it within anonymous backgrounds, which in some instances formed the delicatessen counter or refrigerated bakery case. He rendered each of his subjects just slightly larger than life using thick oil paints, and he allowed the interplay of light, color and shadow to push the image beyond the realm of realistic representation into one of abstract beauty. Looking back, Thiebaud described: “At the end of 1959 or so I began to be interested in a formal approach to composition. I’d been painting gumball machines, windows, counters, and at that point began to rework paintings into much more clearly identified objects. I tried to see if I could get an object to sit on a plane and really be very clear about it. I picked things like pies and cakes—things based upon simple shapes like triangles and circles—and tried to orchestrate them” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in S. A. Nash, Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, 2000, p. 15).

In Happy Birthday Cakes, Thiebaud transforms the matching cakes into objects of beauty, reveling in the interplay of light and shadow that he so deftly conveys. Particularly along the sides of each cake, Thiebaud becomes a master of light. A soft waterfall effect is created as light falls along the edges of the cake, where it is reflected in the subtle sheen of the buttercream. Dabs of the palest pink, soft blue and undertones of mauve all coalesce along the sides of the cake to create an aura of ambient light that bathes the cake in a subtle rainbow flicker. Similarly, Thiebaud explores shadows with aplomb. The soft blue shadow that limits the edge of each cake is rendered in a combination of not only blue, but also aspects of green, black, and bright pops of white. Along the upper edge, slight shadows produced by the yellow band of frosting similarly contain a rainbow array of colors used to evoke shadow, especially a brilliant green infused with black. Thiebaud describes the optical effect he attempts to convey in his rendering of shadows as "halation." While closely examining an object's contours, the artist discovered that they did not appear as simple black outlines, but rather as a light-filled "halo" in which all colors of the spectrum were present. This technique animates the seemingly inanimate object Thiebaud chooses to depict, which, combined with the dexterity of his brushwork, lends that indefinable “certain something” to his work that makes it so mysterious and unique.

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