Richard Estes

The American artist Richard Estes (born 1932) was one of the leading realist painters of urban genre scenes in the latter half of the 20th century.

Richard Estes was born on May 14, 1932, in Kewanee, Ill., and received art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago between 1952 and 1956. Much of his training was in figural and traditional subjects. Following his graduation he worked as a graphic designer in Chicago, and also in New York City from when he moved there in 1959 until 1966 when he became a full-time painter. In 1962, on his own savings, he painted in Spain for a year. His first one-man show took place at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1968.

Estes' work, like that of artists who similarly produce work with a high degree of verisimilitude, has been labeled variously as super-realism, neo-realism, photo-realism, or radical realism. All these terms are useful in understanding Estes' style, but super-realism is the one used more frequently. Another term, one used as the title of an important group show in 1972, was "sharp-focus realism." This exhibition included traditional, non-abstract, illusionistic work. Most looked like large photographs.

Estes' use of photography made the sharp-focus realism show controversial because critics were not comfortable using the term "realism." Realism is the 19th-century artistic style associated with subjects of modern, everyday life, especially in the work of artists such as Courbet and Eakins. For the 20th-century artists, the use of the photograph was essential, since it was the common denominator by which most people developed norms of seeing. Estes normally used several photographs in the preparation of a single painted composition. The paintings are not reproductions of photographs, but highly organized compositions based on photographs.

Estes' paintings frequently portray anonymous streets or other urban sights, with reflective glass, metal, cars, store-fronts, and other surfaces. Often scenes include elaborate signage, curved and reflective architectural shapes, and colored neon, reminiscent of Art Deco. But other details make clear that Estes was not recreating a previous era in his paintings, but rather showing structures that had endured the passage of time. The reflective surfaces concentrate attention not only on what is inside the windows but on what is around the viewer, the context of those contents.

Most of the scenes are of Manhattan, but there are also images of Venice, Chicago, and Paris. His scenes show daylight, never night, and suggest vacant and quiet Sunday mornings. He rarely included garbage, people, slush or snow, or other details that would detract from the structures of the city. But there are numerous details in terms of signs, stickers, and window displays, often viewed backwards because reflected. An Estes painting presents more visual information than can easily be received. This wealth of familiar detail is essential to the concept of realism in painting.

Estes mostly worked in oils or acrylics, and in constructing a painting he moved from the general to the specific. He used color slides in the studio, but did not project on the canvas as did some other artists. He did, however, plan on the canvas, first sketching out entirely the general composition. His work in the studio was one of selection and organization. Thus, despite the power of the photographic illusionism, the abstract qualities are strong. The thoughtful viewer is sensitive to forms and shapes, as much as to the tactile quality of the surfaces and objects.

Estes admired the early 20th-century photographer Atget and 18th-century Venetian vedute (view) painters such as Canaletto and Bellotto. These artists presented detached views of their surroundings, sensitive to the particularity of places but equally concerned with strong pictorial composition. Estes' paintings are far removed from the powerful Abstract Expressionist tendency in American painting in the post-World War II period. His relationship to Pop Art was more complex. He did not share the light-hearted casual approach of those artists, but certainly relied on aspects of popular culture in his work.

Richard Estes' work emphasizes craftsmanship and traditional conventions of making a two-dimensional canvas look three-dimensional, allowing the viewer to play the impartial observer, so that the sensation of being in that scene determines a more subtle mood. He was one of the most accomplished painters in defining and presenting the urban landscape in a super-realist style.

Further Reading on Richard Estes

An excellent monograph is L. K. Meisel, Richard Estes: The Complete Paintings, 1966-1985 (1986). Estes and other artists working in a realist style are discussed in G. Battcock, editor, Super Realism (1975); F. H. Goodyear, Contemporary American Realism Since 1960 (1981); and E. Lucie-Smith, Super Realism (1979). For excellent broader discussions of various art movements, including super-realism, see C. Robins, The Pluralist Era (1984) and H. Smagula, Currents: Contemporary Directions in the Visual Arts (1989). Other more general studies of this period are S. Hunter and J. Jacobus, Modern Art (1985) and E. Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies (1980).