The landscape remade, Thiebaud’s Ponds and Streams

A colorful perspective on agriculture, water, and pollution

Wayne Thiebaud, Ponds and Streams, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 182.9 x 152.4 cm (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, ©Wayne Thiebaud), a Seeing America video

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Key points

  • Wayne Thiebaud uses unnatural colors, strong contrasts, and an unconventional sense of perspective to paint a landscape that is beautiful, but also distant from the natural world. This modern landscape is man-made and artificial, but also presents us with a type of constructed beauty.
  • The Sacramento River valley is the most productive agricultural region in America, despite its naturally arid conditions. The landscape has been significantly altered and controlled in order to provide water to these farms. These interventions have led to episodes of water pollution in a heavily populated area. In recent years, drought has also become an important issue.
  • Landscape painting has a long tradition in the United States often characterized by a nostalgia for the landscape before its settlement and development.

Go deeper

View and read about this painting at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Explore the history of the Sacramento region through primary source documents

Read about the environmental issues facing the Sacramento River valley

Learn more about the Sacramento River valley

Find out about the top 5 pieces of environmental legislation in the U.S.

Watch a video of Wayne Thiebaud or read more about his work

Learn about the development of landscape painting in the United States


More to think about

Bolthouse [an industrial farm in the Central Valley] processes six million pounds of carrots a day. If you took its yield from one week and stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth. If you took all the carrots the company grows in a year, they would double the weight of the Empire State Building….At Bolthouse’s complex, carrots whirl around on conveyor belts at up to 50 miles an hour en route to their future as juliennes, coins and stubs, or baby carrots, which the company popularized and which aren’t babies.

— Mark Bittman, “Everyone Eats There,” The New York Times (October 10, 2012)

Given this reality, why do you think that so many Americans persist in imagining farms as quaint small family operations? Does Thiebaud’s painting make you think differently about the modern agricultural landscape?


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.