WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
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Property from the Family of Nina Van Rensselaer
WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)

Three Ice Cream Cones

WAYNE THIEBAUD (1920 - 2021)
Three Ice Cream Cones
incised with the artist’s signature and date ‘Thiebaud 1964’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
12 x 15 in. (30.5 x 38.1 cm.)
Painted in 1964.
Nina Van Rensselaer and Robert Kelly, Sacramento, acquired directly from the artist, circa 1964
By descent from the above to the present owner
California State University, Long Beach, Wayne Thiebaud: Survey of Painting, 1950-72, November-December 1972, n.p., no. 15.


Kathryn Widing
Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of 21st Century Evening Sale


Wayne Thiebaud’s Three Ice Cream Cones from 1964 presents a luscious study of nostalgic delight. The painting’s depiction of delightful desserts, each perfectly stacked with one glistening scoop of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, recalls an idealized dream of childhood joy. When placed against a soft and abstracted background, the treats lose their sense of scale, allowing them to expand in the mind’s eye and bloom into pristine objects on this idealized plane.
Acquired directly from the artist by Nina Van Rensselaer of Sacramento, who considered Wayne a mentor to her, Three Ice Cream Cones has been passed down in the same private collection for six decades. A student of ceramic art, formally trained at the University of California, Davis, Nina had an uncanny and eccentric eye. It was at the UC Davis Art department in the mid-1960s where she enjoyed creative freedom and befriended West Coast artists, such Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly, William Wiley and Wayne Thiebaud. She recalls of Thiebaud’s work from the 1960s, “[h]e would tell you that they were not Pop Art; however, I think there was some influence. He certainly was painting an object, and it was an iconic object, and I think that’s what he meant it to be... See he had these little halation lines… he was very excited about those always. We had to work very hard on our white. But we also had to do the halations” (N. Van Rensselaer quoted in T. Hanlon’s The Frog in the Pond, 2017).
Three Ice Cream Cones’ elevation of the mundane to the monumental encapsulates the quintessential spirit of Thiebaud. At first glance, the painting seems to feature quotidian subject matter in a whimsical and appealing palette. Although, through the mastery of Thiebaud’s brush, a closer inspection yields a transfiguration of the three shining ice cream cones into almost holy objects. They stand proudly in their white holder as perhaps three perfect muses of summer, or a three-versed ode to American life in the 1960s. As Steven A. Nash described in Thiebaud’s retrospective catalogue: "His objects are nuggets of nostalgia, encoding fond memories from his youth but also aspects of American life meaningful to a great many of us." (S. A. Nash, "Unbalancing Acts: Wayne Thiebaud Reconsidered,” Wayne Thiebaud: A Paintings Retrospective, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2000, p. 35).
The unique intrigue of Thiebaud’s Three Ice Cream Cones can be found in the way the painting evolves during a session of close looking. Upon first encountering the work, its size may conjure parallels to commercial posters. The bright, seductive colors and clean composition are painted in the same visual language as magazines, movies, or advertisements. This visual proximity to commercial art may stem from Thiebaud’s origins as a cartoonist and apprentice at Disney’s animation department at age sixteen. While he shifted paths to fine art in the 1940s, his early love for commercial art still emerges in the initial appeal of works like Three Ice Cream Cones. Yet, in any prolonged viewing of the work, those echoes of the world of advertising and cartooning begin to fade away. Instead, allusions to great painters of American life, like Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell, resound in the gleaming pastel shades that reveal the splendors of American culture. The lack of any foreshortening behind the row of ice cream cones forces the eye to focus on these sublime orbs of cold delights. The imagination fills in for the senses here, allowing the viewer to almost feel the hot air of a summer afternoon and yearn for the icy, sweet relief of Three Ice Cream Cones’ featured subjects.
Three Ice Cream Cones dances the line of austerity and celebration, at once memorializing the frozen treats while embracing the connotations of innocent pleasure. By capturing the ice cream cones in their most idealized form, not yet dripping and melted from a hot summer sun, Thiebaud creates a palpable tension, which is, perhaps, his most powerful memento mori. Fine runways of kelly green, navy blue, tangerine and teal outline the impastoed white cone holder across the center of the composition, while the thrilling midnight blue silhouettes of the cones position an imagined sun casting their magnificent shadows. Juicy swatches of thick impasto in pink, chocolate and cream articulate the foreground. Thiebaud’s mastery of paint preserves and venerates a fleeting moment in time.
In his celebrated style, he suffuses the atmosphere of this imagined still life with his signature brand of conviviality, also on display in Girl with Ice Cream Cone, made the year prior, featuring an ebullient depiction of Thiebaud’s wife, Betty Jean Carr. The artist renders his beautiful muse leaning back in a bathing suit, her legs extending towards the viewer in a casual manner. The shadowing is exaggerated and made fantastical – the hollows of Carr’s cheeks and the soles of her feet swept with hazy blues and purples. The swathes of bright color excude warmth and light, and, of course, the central frozen treat Carr enjoys make the work a striking parallel to Three Ice Cream Cones. Thiebaud extracts the central motif from this earlier painting, striping away the figure and expanding upon the conduit of pleasure as the subject. In both paintings, his virtuoso handling of paint infuses the compositions with an air of wistful whimsy, transforming a humble subject into a work of painterly exuberance. Wayne Thiebaud’s inimitable ability to express light, color, space and form has established him as one of the most important artists of the past century.

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