Artist and Musician Biographies


Here Jessica May, PMA's Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art, explaining Estes work.

Richard Estes was born in 1936 in Evanston, Illinois. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago, concentrating on painting. He graduated in 1956 and eventually moved to New York City to work for a magazine publisher. By 1965, Estes saved enough money to spend his time on painting alone. Estes was interested in the old-fashioned, traditional painting rather than Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art.

He is an artist who clinically examines the environment in which he lives in and produces incredibly meticulous acrylic and oil paintings of those settings. He is classified as a photo-realist painter because of his extreme attention to detail and the stunning realism of his work. He collects his images from various photographs and combines them to form his final image in a painting, which may appear to be more "real" than the photographs themselves.

His early paintings included the human figure engaged in normal daily activities in the city, such as waiting for a bus or crossing a street. However, eventually the figure was phased out of his paintings to make his paintings less narrative and more visual. His subject evolved into the urban landscape of New York City itself. His paintings have very smooth and precise brushwork to accomplish the meticulous detail of the lifelike settings. His process of painting has been carefully documented through a series of photographs of the various stages in his production. Blocks of diluted acrylic paint are laid down on the canvas followed by broad highlights and shadows. Finally, oil paint is meticulously applied to finish the fine detail. He often uses a stick to steady his hand while painting to prevent mistakes. The process is slow, calculated, and very cerebral. This intensity given to detail limits Estes's output of paintings, allowing only for 12-15 paintings each year.

Estes is particularly interested in capturing reflections in glass or highly polished surfaces. These are often urban storefront windows with images mirrored from across the street. Many of these paintings demonstrate both his concentration on detail as well as his emphasis on reflection. These reflections give his paintings a sense of depth, and in fact deal with one of the most difficult technical issues in painting: portraying reflected surfaces in a convincing manner.

Estes' paintings were shown in a group show entitled "Aspects of New Realism" at the Milwaukee Art Center in 1969 that set the stage for the emergence of photo-realism in the early 1970's. He exhibited in the Whitney Annual in 1970 and 1972 and took part in the "Neue Amerikanische Realisten" show in Hamburg and Bremen, West Germany. Some of Estes' most notable works include "Diner" (1971) with its three reflective stainless steel telephone booths in the foreground and "Helene's Florist" (1971). Both of these works have very strong horizontal lines, as the view of the subject is straight onwards. The detail in both of these paintings is also incredible.

Estes often hides his signature in his paintings by placing it in unconventional locations. For example, his signature can be found on the luncheonette menu in "Helene's Florist". His signature also appears as 19 ESTES 72 on a license plate on one of the cars parked on a deserted street in his painting, "Paris Street Scene".

Many American critics and museum visitors find Estes's work disturbing because of his depopulated urban landscapes. These images of empty cities often appear to have a striking resemblance to what the city would like in the aftermath of a nuclear war that had destroyed the population but not the structures of the city.

Richard Estes continues to paint what he sees and divides his time between his Manhattan studio and his home on the northern coast of Maine.

Page author: L.C.