At ninety-nine, Wayne Thiebaud—one of America’s greatest painters, and certainly its premier painter of food—is still going strong. This is Thiebaud’s ninth cover for the magazine, and it riffs on one of his previous paintings, an image of a turkey that he started in 2009. A sharp viewer might pick out the added details and embellishments, but more striking, perhaps, are the Thiebaud hallmarks that remain the same: soft light, clear color, a blue shadow pooling around a plate. We recently called Thiebaud at his home, in Sacramento, to talk about his work.
This image is actually a revision of your 2009 painting “Neapolitan Turkey.” Why did the turkey get stuffed?
Well, I always do things in series. I try to figure out a way to keep a painting going over the course of the years. The process for this one was relatively short. This particular bird, if you remember, is what we talked about as a possibility for Thanksgiving. But the thing about Thanksgiving is that, at day’s end, everybody is stuffed! So I thought the proper thing would be to overstuff the turkey.
The 2009 “Neapolitan Turkey”
One of the elements you changed is the shadow—wasn’t it slimmer?
Yes, I had to increase the shadow since the bird itself was larger. And I changed many things about the accompaniments. I wanted to paint typical Thanksgiving food, so obviously I put things like sweet potatoes, small onions, tomatoes, greens, etc. I tried to fill it up as well as I could.
You started as a cartoonist and still identify as one. Were any New Yorker artists relevant to you? Did you ever submit cartoons to the magazine?
[Laughs] Well, I probably submitted as many as two to three hundred cartoons to the magazine—they were never accepted! But I’m a big fan of cartoonists, and even collect original cartoons. Some of my heroes are George Price, Helen Hokinson, Peter Arno. I could probably name another twenty or thirty.
I came to New York in 1946, after getting out of the service, specifically to try to sell cartoons. And I sold to trade magazines, but I could never make it in The New Yorker—you people have too high a standard! At one point, I had a conversation with John Updike, who had been a cartoonist at the Harvard Lampoon, and we both cried together about never being able to get our stuff into The New Yorker.
Well, that was a loss for us, but a great gain for the art world! You grew up on your grandfather’s farm, in southern Utah, and you’ve said that working in restaurants inspired many of your food paintings. Can you speak more about that?
Since all of my paintings—almost every single one except for the figure paintings—are done from memory, I rely specifically on the memory of working in restaurants, or of visiting farms on which I worked as a young person. I try to recall the look and feel and love of what I have experienced.
The same goes for my landscape paintings. Utah was full of wonderful red earth, mesas and mesa-type outcroppings. When I moved to Southern California, I spent a lot of time on the beach—I loved the beach bluffs. And then, in Lake Tahoe later in life, the High Sierras were a great inspiration. Recalling all of them from memory gave me the option of working on the mountains, for example, more abstractly.
You’ve always been somewhat removed from contemporary trends in painting. Which period of art history is most inspiring to you?
I’m a big lover of art history because I feel painting is both cumulative and collaborative. In other words, you look to the masters not only for inspiration but also for tools, devices, and visual conventions. It doesn’t just stop with the Western tradition. I relish Middle Eastern art, Japanese art, Mexican art—every kind of visual enterprise I love, cherish, and try to steal from as much as I can.
How would you compare your turkey with Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving painting for the Saturday Evening Post?
That’s a marvelous turkey! I don’t know if anyone could compete with that. That’s a beautiful, American, wonderfully felt family get-together. Everyone is right there, including the turkey.
See below for more covers by Thiebaud that celebrate food: