Wayne Thiebaud, pioneer of American “New Realism”

An enigmatic, timeless scene by Wayne Thiebaud at auction


Depicting an enigmatic, timeless scene, Woman & Cosmetics is a rare and outstanding example of Wayne Thiebaud’s figure paintings. Executed in 1963-1966, it remarkably illustrates the artist’s shift from his preoccupation with consumer imagery to the human figure that began in 1963, just a year after his first solo show in New York at Allan Stone Gallery. The attention to the figure was undoubtedly motivated by Thiebaud’s desire to interrupt the confectionary concerns that had resulted in his identification as a Pop artist, a classification that he never agreed with. Together with other contemporary painters who turned their attention to this subject in the mid-sixties, such as Alex Katz or Phillip Pearlstein, Thiebaud marked at this time the start of a “new realism” in American art. Though they differ from his well-known still lifes, the figurative paintings, which constitute only a modest portion of his total oeuvre but have always been one of his major preoccupations, perfectly demonstrate the artist’s distinctive technique with their frontality and symmetry.




Woman & Cosmetics is a particularly significant work because, while structured as two distinct parts, it blends and integrates seamlessly the figurative and still life styles creating true artistic magic. In an almost life-size composition, it offers a surreal vision of a nude woman’s bust bursting through a window from a cold grey interior to face a disorganized display of cosmetics. The marked absence of articulation between the two parts is reinforced by the upper part definite contour as opposed to the lower part which seems to extend infinitely beyond its less definite frame. Thiebaud’s preoccupation with the formalist concerns of the picture plane and perspective also extends to the figure who stands apart from the two dimensionality of the painted void and whose volume is only rendered by a nimbus of neon reds turning into oranges, yellows, greens and blues outlining it.

The painted void around the woman, which isolates her from her immediate surrounding through a clinical austerity, gives the figure a sense of virtual abstraction. This non-narrative context is derived from Thiebaud’s concern for painting the figure without affection or sentimentality. Unlike narrative figure painting, the artist is interested in total detachment and deliberately positions the model in a way that reveals minimal action or intent. As he explained: “It occurs to me that most people in figure paintings have always done something. The figures have been standing posing, fighting, loving, and what I’m interested in, really, is the figure that is about to do something, or has done something, or is doing nothing, and, with that sort of centering device, try to figure out what can be revealed, not only to people, but to myself ” (Wayne Thiebaud, interviewed by Dan Tooker, Art International 18, n°9, November 15,1974).

This exceptional, rare painting, in which Thiebaud juxtaposes the human figure with objects from mass-culture also benefits from a prestigious provenance. Having been purchased by Allan Stone, the famous New York gallerist and Thiebaud’s dealer for over forty years, it has since remained in the same family collection for the last five decades. Enigmatic, imbued with hidden sensuality, Woman & Cosmetics illustrates a moment of inexplicable, almost metaphysical evocativeness and is a significant testament to Wayne Thiebaud’s singularity and unique style.

Contemporary Art Sale, November 27, 2019, 7pm