Betty Jean Thiebaud, a filmmaker and teacher and the wife of renowned Sacramento-based painter Wayne Thiebaud, died Saturday afternoon. She was 86.
Thiebaud passed away at the couple’s Land Park home after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, said her artist son Matt Bult. She’s survived by her 95-year-old husband, a son and four grandchildren.
Born Betty Jean Carr, she was a native of Shell Knob, Mo., and met Wayne Thiebaud in the mid-1950s. They married in 1959, moved to the Sacramento County community of Hood and then to their current home in 1971.
She taught elementary school in Lodi before becoming an avid filmmaker in the late 1960s, going on to make 11 independent short films, said Bult, her son from a previous marriage.
Thiebaud was influenced by French filmmaker Rene Clair and the still lifes of Italian painter Giorgio Morandi. She mainly made documentaries about art or artists, with her most notable film the 17-minute “Elaine de Kooning Paints a Portrait” from 1976.
She also became an accomplished tennis player, with a national doubles ranking in the mid-1970s, her son said.
Her greatest fame in the art world came from playing the muse for her husband’s oil and acrylic paintings.
That figurative work contrasted with Wayne Thiebaud’s still lifes of frosted cakes and lollipops or his colorful, vertiginous street scenes.
One of the definitive paintings in the Crocker Art Museum’s permanent collection is the Wayne Thiebaud oil painting “Betty Jean With Book,” where she’s rendered against a stark white background.
“I remember her posing for those paintings because Wayne didn’t paint from a photograph,” Bult said. “She posed throughout his career. Even up until five years ago, she was posing for him.”
She was a member of the director’s circle at the Crocker and a big supporter of the museum as well as an imposing presence, said Lial Jones, the museum’s executive director. “She was a rather regal woman. She was smart and opinionated, but opinionated in a really nice way,” Jones said.
A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, she and her husband also supported the arts at UC Davis, including bringing top painters and other names there, said UC Davis art professor Gina Werfel.
“She was very energized and believed very passionately about the importance of drawing and introducing students to significant artists who would bring a new point of view into an educational context,” Werfel said.
Her appearance in her husband’s paintings often revealed an intriguing, singular charm, Jones said.
“In the portraits, Betty Jean is a central figure of the canvas. There is just a contemplative look on her – it’s a very direct kind of gaze,” Jones said. “There is definitely a warmth that comes through, and you can see there was a lot of care and attention in the way Wayne handled her with paint.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 15 to correct the number of Betty Jean Thiebaud’s surviving children.
Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz