Painted in the winter of 1964, Wayne Thiebaud’s Three Cones is an exemplary example of the artist’s work. His ability to contemplate—then replicate—light, color, space and form is unmatched in late twentieth century painting, and his rows of painted cakes, confectionary, pinball machines and ice cream cones have become an important part of the postwar American artistic canon. Living and working in California, Thiebaud eschewed the dramatic gestural abstractions of the New York School, instead developing his own unique style. “I am very fascinated with the concept of the stare” he says. “Staring fixedly at an object does something to expand time. The more you look at it, the more the edges, the inside and the minute particles quiver. It is almost as if it is loaded and you recognize a kind of stillness which tends to vibrate. When I stroke around the object with a loaded paintbrush it is calculated to echo the presence of that object” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in J. Coplans, Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, p. 35-36). Three Cones occupies a distinguished place in Thiebaud’s personal story as it has been in the collection of Maggy Cullman (the first wife of Thiebaud’s dealer Allan Stone) since 1965, and has remained there for more than 50 years.
In this archetypal painting, a trio of delicious ice cream cones sit in a row, waiting to be consumed. The three cones are piled high with scoops of thick, slightly melting ice cream; their flavors—strawberry, chocolate and vanilla—representing the classic Neopolitan trifecta. Thiebaud’s generous application of paint perfectly mimics the surface of the ice creams, inviting the viewer—almost salivating with anticipation—to enjoy their rich, creamy goodness. The repetition of the ice creams is a motif that is central to Thiebaud’s work. He uses it in many of the best examples of his paintings; from the products lining his delicatessen counters to his rows of cakes and pastries, reiteration lies at the heart of the artist’s work. As central as the actual ice creams are to the composition, Thiebaud contrasts the richness and roundness of the scoops with the sparse geometry of the setting. The strict lines of the shelf upon which the ice creams sit are in stark contrast to the amorphous shadows that the cones cast. It is in these areas that Thiebaud’s exemplary use of color is also on display; from the soft pastel tones of the ice creams themselves, to the prismatic kaleidoscope that he uses to render the shadows and recesses of the composition, his handling of color to depict light and space is unmatched among his generation of artists. Adam Gopnik describes Thiebaud’s signature halation of his foodstuffs best, “The cakes, which seem so honestly and forthrightly described, turn out, when they’re seen up close, to be outlined with rings and rainbows of pure color; bright blues and reds and purples, which register at a distance only as a just perceptible vibrator. These rings are Thiebaud’s own invention; there’s nothing quite like them in any other painting, and they give to his pictures not just a sense of the shiver of light in a particular place but also the sense that the scene has the interior life and unnatural emphases of something recalled from memory” (A. Gopnik, “Window Gazing,” The New Yorker, Apr. 29, 1991, p. 80).
The origins of this unique style can be traced back to the late 1950s. Looking back, Thiebaud said: "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 addition to its quintessential subject matter, Three Cones comes with the distinguished provenance of having been in the personal collection of Maggy Cullman, who acquired it from her husband, Thiebaud’s dealer, Allan Stone. Cullman says she has always admired the artist’s paintings for the way they are able to tap into our emotional resonances, “… particularly the ice cream cones and the pinball machines, it elicits the senses; it brings back the sounds and smells and things like that, which I find remarkable” she says. “When he paints something, it becomes more real than the thing itself. His ice cream cones for example. I've never seen an ice cream cone that looked that much like an ice cream. When he paints something, it becomes more real than it ever was just by itself, which is quite remarkable.”
Jeremy Stone, Allan Stone’s daughter, continues “My father wasn't seeing that much representational work and he wasn't seeing such structured, organized thoughtful work that was such a contradiction to it. [In Wayne’s work] there was a thick painterly impasto and this impossibly seductive, cheerful color in a very formal construct. And, you know, seductive subject matter—pies and ice cream and cakes. And it was refreshing I think. And shocking… To me, the three kinds of ice cream—vanilla, chocolate and strawberry—were really such a classic example of the way Wayne approaches formal composition, using really temporal subject matter—ice creams. When you look at it, all you can think about is you've got to eat it before it melts. The other great thing about Wayne's paintings is that the ice cream never melts. They are so captured in time that the moment of infatuation, the moment of first seeing them, is what you keep with you always” (M. Cullman & J. Stone in conversation with Christie’s, March 2020).
Thiebaud’s unique skill transforms an object such as a humble ice cream cone into a work of painterly exuberance. Through the advances of mass production, commerce, international travel, and even technology, the simple strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream cone has almost become a nostalgic relic of the past. It references a slower, simpler time, in which a trip to the beach or the park meant listening out for the melodic chimes of the ice cream truck. Thiebaud’s Three Cones evokes all of these things and more, making it the symbol of American childhood. 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).