Display Cakes by Wayne Thiebaud

Today’s discussion of Wayne Thiebaud’s 1963 Pop Art masterpiece Display Cakes includes:

  • The precarious balance on display in Display Cakes.
  • Why Display Cakes is better than actual cake.
  • Frequently Asked Questions, like “Why did Wayne Thiebaud paint Display Cakes?”

Wayne Thiebaud championed unappreciated pastries. For instance, the 1963 Display Cakes sits at the center of the Pop Art movement. It’s tempting to thus label this masterpiece as such. After all, Pop Art elevates popular mainstream subject matter. This spotlights our desires, and even obsessions. Thiebaud’s pastry portrayals point to America’s sugar fixation. He’s got a point there. But there’s much more to these immaculate sweets. Their impact transcends Pop Art. That’s because they’re as philosophical as they are delectable.

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First we must force our eyes away from the cakes. Not an easy task. Thiebaud tests the strengths of a viewer’s will with these delicious treats. We can gaze away at the cakes. Or we can know the deeper meaning behind this painting. But we can’t have it both ways. To understand Display Cakes, viewers must look beyond the confections. The background reveals a precarious drama at hand. These cakes perch upon inexplicable poles. Thiebaud didn’t only elevate these pastries in the literal sense, though. This American painter pointed to their existence as mere art with this move. These cakes are true ideals. That’s because, in fact, they are only ideal. They don’t actually exist other than in this artwork.

By putting them on impossible stilts, Thiebaud reminds us that he doesn’t make actual cakes. He creates art. This alluring tease tells the real story of Display Cakes. Art’s greatest gifts are insight and illusion. This painting provides both. Spinning at impossible heights, these cakes tantalize without taste. But we can’t call them mere art. It’s cakes that are mere and art that elevates. When we remember and realize that these cakes aren’t real, it’s a delight not a disappointment. That’s because Thiebaud presents them with a greater meaning in mind.

Still Life as a Precarious Perch

These confections in Display Cakes qualify it as a still life painting. That means it portrays subject matter that doesn’t move in real life. So, a still life doesn’t only capture a moment in time. It enhances inanimate subjects with meaningful detail. A still life works more as a study than a mere portrayal. It explores the subject’s details – sometimes to a fetishistic level. This can present in various ways: from ultra realistic to uber romantic takes on everything – even fruit and PB&J sandwiches. Or a painter might do a romantic portrait of a dead body. It makes no difference the style, object, or even purpose. They’re each a still life.

Wayne Thibaud’s painting Display Cakes stands out as a still life thanks to its purpose. It’s about much more than a fetishized pastry. In fact, it’s got the deepest possible meaning. Such a poignant still life fits into the category Memento Mori*. That means the painting evokes the ephemeral nature of life. These cakes can only balance on skinny poles like this for the millisecond they’re on canvas. Even if they were spinning, this action couldn’t last long. But their perfect stillness makes them all the more short-lived. After all, they rest on unsteady straw foundations.

With this characterization of his cakes, Thiebaud points to the fleeting quality of all baked goods. That’s true in our real world as well as the impossible one he built in Display Cakes. It sets this masterpiece apart from other still life paintings. The unreality of Thiebaud’s concocted scenario reminds us that these beautiful cakes can’t be real. But they also represent the harshest reality – life is short. Only a work of great art can convey all this with a single image. It’s also what makes this painting a masterpiece.

Display Cakes – FAQs


Where can I see Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Display Cakes in person?

The Pop Art, still life Display Cakes lives at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Otherwise known as SFMOMA, this national leader in modern art includes an enormous public space. The art-packed 45K square feet offer a free open gallery for the Bay Area and beyond to appreciate every genre of fine Modern art. Anyone can visit for a hearty dose of inspiration. But there’s also seven more art gallery floors with wonders galore. So, make sure you schedule more than one visit when you’re in San Fran for SFMOMA.

Why did Wayne Thiebaud paint Display Cakes?

My LadyKflo policies eschew artist mind-reading. I try to focus on what we see in their work as well as what the artist and others say about it instead. So, it can be a challenge to answer why questions about artist choices. But we’re lucky in this particular case. Thiebaud and art historians both loved to talk about this very topic*. In fact, there were several reasons he painted so many cakes including those in the painting Display Cakes.

Among them is the almost tactile sense it gave him of making an actual cake. Thiebaud said this about it:

You take a lemon meringue pie. It’s quite a
beautiful thing….It’s more than just a subject,
it’s also a kind of relationship to the paint itself.
You really feel like you’re sort of making the
meringue and…working with the pie.

Wayne Thiebaud An Eye For Art – Observing Everyday Life*

He also said that it was a genuine element of his privileged experience growing up in America. The luxury of such sweet treats likely rang a loud bell with him. After all, Wayne Thiebaud was a hungry young boy during the Great Depression. It makes sense that delectable delights might hold a nostalgic place in his mind.

Why is Wayne Thiebaud an important painter?

This question’s in the present tense for good reason. As of this writing (early 2021), Wayne Thiebaud’s still kicking it at 100 years old. There are many ways to frame his significance in art history. Some art historians say he was a forerunner in the Pop Art movement. They focus on his painting of common, everyday objects. But he accomplished more than this. Thiebaud didn’t merely portray these familiar items for us in a realistic way. He showed us that they meant more. For instance, Display Cakes elevates an allegedly common experience – buying a cake.

His work injects a sense of fond reminiscence into universal human experiences. We all have some sense of what it’s like to get a cake. It could be a childhood memory of a parent buying one for us. Or maybe we even made a cake with them. Either way, this imbues sense memory into Thiebaud’s painting. We know the smell, taste, and feel of cake. Even the sound of a knife slicing cake can arouse memories of special occasions. Wayne Thiebaud worked this sensory magic into his art. He didn’t just paint cakes. With these artistic confections, he painted fond memories we all share.


Check out these other essays on American painters.

*Smithsonian article on Wayne Thiebaud

*National Gallery of Art: An Eye For Art

*Still Life definition

*Memento Mori definition