Morton Wayne Thiebaud was an American painter known for his colorful works depicting commonplace objects—pies, lipsticks, paint cans, ice cream cones, pastries, and hot dogs—as well as for his landscapes and figure paintings. Thiebaud is associated with the pop art movement because of his interest in objects of mass culture, although his early works, executed during the fifties and sixties, slightly predate the works of the classic pop artists. Thiebaud used heavy pigment and exaggerated colors to depict his subjects, and the well-defined shadows characteristic of advertisements are almost always included in his work.
Thiebaud was born to Alice Eugenia (Le Baron) and Morton Thiebaud in Mesa, Arizona. They moved a year later to Southern California where the family lived for most of Thiebaud's childhood until he graduated from secondary school in Long Beach, California. Thiebaud and his family were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his father was a bishop in the church when Thiebaud was a teenager. Morton was also a Ford mechanic, foreman at Gold Medal Creamery, traffic safety supervisor, and real estate agent.
One summer during his high school years, he apprenticed at Walt Disney Studios drawing "in-betweens" of Goofy, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket at a rate of $14 a week. The next summer, he studied at the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles. From 1938 to 1949, he worked as a cartoonist and designer in California and New York City. He served as an artist in the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces from 1942 to 1945.
In 1949, he enrolled at San Jose State College (now San José State University) before transferring to Sacramento State College (now California State University, Sacramento), where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1951 and a master's degree in 1952.
Thiebaud subsequently began teaching at Sacramento City College. In 1960, he became assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, where he remained through 1991 and influenced numerous art students. He held a Professor Emeritus title there up until his death in late 2021. Occasionally, he gave pro bono lectures at U.C. Davis.
On a leave of absence during 1956–57, he spent time in New York City, where he became friends with Elaine and Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and was much influenced by these abstractionists as well as by proto-pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. During this time, he began a series of very small paintings based on images of food displayed in windows, and he focused on their basic shapes.
Returning to California, he pursued this subject matter and style, isolating triangles, circles, squares, etc. He also co-founded the Artists Cooperative Gallery, now Artists Contemporary Gallery, and other cooperatives including Pond Farm, having been exposed to the concept of cooperatives in New York.
In 1960, he had his first solo show in San Francisco at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and shows in New York City at the Staempfli and Tanager galleries. These shows received little notice, but two years later, a 1962 Sidney Janis Gallery exhibition in New York officially launched Pop Art, bringing Thiebaud national recognition, although he disclaimed being anything other than a painter of illusionistic form.
In 1961, Thiebaud met and became friends with art dealer Allan Stone (1932–2006), the man who gave him his first "break." Stone was Thiebaud's dealer until Stone's death in 2006. Stone said of Thiebaud "I have had the pleasure of friendship with a complex and talented man, a terrific teacher and cook, the best raconteur in the west with a spin serve, and a great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility. Thiebaud's dedication to painting and his pursuit of excellence inspire all who are lucky enough to come in contact with him. He is a very special man." After Stone's death, Thiebaud's son Paul Thiebaud (1960–2010) took over as his dealer. Paul Thiebaud was a successful art dealer in his own right and had eponymous galleries in Manhattan and San Francisco; he died June 19, 2010.
In 1962, Thiebaud's work was included, along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Phillip Hefferton, Joe Goode, Edward Ruscha, and Robert Dowd, in the historically important and ground-breaking "New Painting of Common Objects," curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum at Pasadena). This exhibition is considered to have been one of the first Pop Art exhibitions in the United States. These painters were part of a new movement, in a time of social unrest, which shocked the United States and the art world.
In 1963, he turned increasingly to figure painting: wooden and rigid, with each detail sharply emphasized. In 1964, he made his first prints at Crown Point Press, and continued to make prints throughout his career. In 1967, his work was shown at the Biennale Internationale.
Thiebaud was married twice. With his first wife, Patricia Patterson, he had two children, one of whom is the model and writer Twinka Thiebaud. With his second wife, Betty Jean Carr, he had a son, Paul LeBaron Thiebaud, who became an art dealer. He also adopted Betty's son, Matthew.
He died at his residence in Sacramento on Christmas Day 2021, at the age of 101.