Richard Estes
Biography, Streetscapes of American Photorealist Painter.

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Estes created some of the greatest 20th century paintings of the Photorealist idiom.

Richard Estes (b.1932)


Early Career
Early Paintings
City Streetscapes

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terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

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For the greatest view painters, see:
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For the greatest genre-painting, see:
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The American painter and printmaker Richard Estes is one of the best known exponents of photorealism (superrealism, or hyperrealism). In many ways a development of Pop art, his meticulous paintings (all based on photographs) celebrate sites of American popular culture, such as shop fronts, diners, internal spaces, parking lots, and street views. Famous for their almost invisible brushwork, paintings by Richard Estes include Food Shop (1967, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), Telephone Booths (1968), Gordon's Gin (1968), Diner (1971, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC), Grossinger's Bakery (1972, Visual Arts Library), Paris Street Scene (1973), Double Self-Portrait (1976, Museum of Modern Art New York), and Solomon Guggenheim Museum (1979, Guggenheim). Other artists who helped to popularize the photorealist movement in America, include: painter Chuck Close (b.1940) and sculptors Duane Hanson (1925-96), John De Andrea (b.1941) and Carole Feuerman (b.1945).


Early Career

Born in Kewanee Illinois in 1932, Estes moved to Chicago with his family when he was still young. As a student, he studied Fine Art at the Institute of Chicago, focusing on traditional academic art and figure drawing. The Institute had an extensive collection of Realist painting in its collection, including works by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and the Frenchman Edgar Degas (1834-1917), all of which influenced Estes’s artistic direction. On graduating in 1956 Estes moved to New York and began working as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for various magazine publishers and advertising agencies. He continued to pursue his art dream by painting at night, which eventually led the way to a full-time career.

Early Paintings

During the early 1960s Estes focused on painting New York street scenes which were primarily figurative in nature. Around 1967 his paintings changed direction when he started to paint store fronts, cars, glass windows and distorted reflections in windows. Estes based his painting on his own colour photographs, and on initial inspection, the lack of visible brushwork makes his canvases look exactly like photos. However, on closer inspection the viewer will see that the images are subtly distorted and the perspectives could not in reality actually exist. In 1968, Estes received his first solo exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery, New York.

In the 1970s, he began to use his camera to take panoramic views, which he recreated on canvas, sometimes showing the same streets from several viewpoints at once. His 1976 Double Self-Portrait (Museum of Modern Art, New York) is a typical example of his wit. It shows the artist, a street with parked cars and the exteriors of the street buildings, all mirrored in the window of a restaurant. Estes initially painted in acrylics, but gradually included oils in his works. His painting of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum (1979, Guggenheim) was initially painted with acrylic, and then over painted in oil. The painting shows the iconic museum building on a deserted afternoon. The street is devoid of people and rubbish (Estes avoided painting litter, finding it unpleasant). Although he admired the work of Edward Hopper, Estes was not particularly interested in reflecting human moods, and so avoided night scenes.

City Streetscapes

Although mostly interested in painting Manhattan, Estes also painted some Chicago, Venice and Parisian scenes. Always in daylight, and always litter free. His streets are vacant, suggesting lazy Sunday afternoons. He wanted nothing to distract from his cityscape. On the other hand he was highly detailed in recording sticker signs, window displays and signals, reflecting the details essential to the art of Realism. Although many Photorealist use projectors to project the image onto canvas, then draw around the image, Estes preferred to do this freehand. He was an admirer of 20th century photographer Eugene Atget whose photographs documented the architecture and street scenes of Paris; as well as traditional Venetian vedute painters like Canaletto, Carlevaris and Bernardo Bellotto.


Photorealism is a contemporary style or genre of American art that is based on the use of photographs. The style primarily applies to paintings and painters in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. Major practitioners include modern artists like Estes, Chuck Close, Howard Kanovitz, Audrey Flack, Ralph Goings, Tom Blackwell, Robert Bechtle, Don Eddy, Robert Cottingham, David Parrish, and Charles Bell. Although they worked independently, they were individually tackling the same painting genres - portraits, landscapes, cityscapes and still life.

Photorealism (aka superrealism), being an extreme form of realism and entirely representational, was the polar opposite to Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, the dominant movements of the era, and in fact evolved from Pop Art. However, the idea that photography could be used as a basis for an art work, stimulated enormous debate and criticism during the early period of Photorealism, despite the fact that visual devices (including the camera obscura) had been utilized in art since the Renaissance. (See Art Photography Glossary.) Ever since Stone Age cave paintings, man has tried to recreate what he sees: the camera only makes this process easier.

Sometimes associated with Trompe L'Oeil, Photorealism is in fact quite different. Where Trompe L'Oeil tries to fool the viewer into thinking they are seeing a real object, the viewer will be aware that a Photorealist oil painting is not real, but very lifelike none the less. Photorealism has some connection to 17th century Dutch Realist genre painting - as in Jan Vermeer's street scenes, with their meticulous detail and high gloss finish are highly realistic. Other influences include exponents of American Precisionism of the 1930s, such as Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Charles Demuth (1883-1935). Although Photorealism is primarily a painter's movement, it was also associated with the sculptors John De Andrea and Duane Hanson, who created ultra life-like sculptures of people. They were also known as Verists.


Estes continues to paint and live in the US. He has exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1971 he was granted a National Council for the Arts fellowship. He has also produced woodcuts and engravings. His paintings are represented in many of the best art museums in America, including:

- Art Institute of Chicago
- Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
- Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
- Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington
- Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
- Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
- Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri
- Nassau County Museum of Art, Roslyn Harbor, New York
- National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, New York
- Orlando Museum of Art, Florida
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
- University of Maine Museum of Art
- USC Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles

• For more biographies of American photorealist artists, see: 20th Century Painters.
• For more information about Photorealism or Hyperrealim, see: Homepage.

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