Richard Estes is regarded as one of the leading practitioners of the international photorealist movement. The photorealists are a group of artists who used photo-based painting techniques to achieve hyperrealist effects. Estes is an American artist well known for his photorealistic paintings of cityscapes. In particular, the stainless-steel surfaces of telephone booths, paintings of New York City scenes such as storefronts and atriums of buildings, the Williamsburg Bridge beams, and the Staten Island Ferry overlook, are among his most notable works. Reflective surfaces such as shop windows and shiny cars produce mirrored images that impair perception.

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Richard Estes_©Louis K. Meisel Gallery
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Williamsburg Bridge beams_©Museum of Arts and Design (MAD)

The paintings of Estes depict scenes from urban life in a meticulous and highly realistic way. In his paintings he is often associated with Photo-Realism, a movement characterized by highly detailed depictions and clarity in focus. At first, he mainly painted views of New York City’s Upper West Side, but he has travelled the world and painted numerous cities over the years. In recent years, he has also painted landscapes. Estes’s paintings go beyond merely depicting photographic details of urban landscapes – they transform the light and forms captured in his photographs into paintings that have intense focus and extreme precision, bringing viewers into dialogue with reality and vision.      

Early Career`

Estes was born in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1932. He earned his degree in 1956 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and then he moved to New York City. After working as an illustrator for a while, Estes decided to sell his work to make a living. Throughout his career, he has been a representational painter, but during the 1960s he started to use a camera to record more accurate details that could not be recorded by memory or observation. Estes is mainly known for his urban scenes, in which he specializes in contemporary realism. ‘Supreme Hardware’ (1974), for example, provides more pictorial incidents than the eye could comprehend. He generally portrayed ordinary Manhattan sites that would otherwise be overlooked. There are hardly ever any humans in these works; instead, he reflects the dynamic patterns of the modern urban landscape.

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Supreme Hardware_©Art Blart

Known for his scrupulous attention to detail as well as his extravagant use of reflections, Estes was obsessive in pursuing pictorial similitude. Estes’ first solo exhibition was held in Allan Stone Gallery in 1968, after which he was able to fully dedicate himself to his work. In the 1980s, he painted scenes of Chicago, Paris, and Florence. In the 1990s, he began to paint scenes of the sea, including the Maine coast. He has created works that are held in prominent museum collections, including that of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Works by the artist can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, among others.

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Jone’s diner, 1979_©Wikiart

Early Paintings

Estes began painting New York street scenes in the early 1960s, which were mostly figurative. His paintings began to take a different course in 1967 when he started to depict storefronts, automobiles, glass windows and distorted reflections in windows. Initially, Estes’ paintings look exactly like his own colour photographs due to the lack of visible brushwork. The viewer will notice, however, that the images are slightly distorted and the perspectives are not possible in reality.

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Diner, 1971 _©Wikiart

From the 1970s onward, he began creating panoramic views, often from multiple perspectives, with his camera, remaking them onto canvas. One of his most characteristic works is the 1976 Double Self-Portrait (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The artwork shows the artist, parked cars, and street buildings reflected in a restaurant window. Estes initially painted in acrylic, but he gradually included oils in his works as well. In 1979, Solomon Guggenheim Museum was painted in acrylic, then overpainted in oil. The painting, which depicts the landmark museum building on a deserted afternoon, was composed of acrylic and oil. Estes avoided painting litter on the street as he found it unpleasant. Even though he appreciated Edward Hopper’s work, the artist was not particularly interested in depicting human moods and therefore avoided night scenes.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum_©Richard Estes

Estes is primarily known for his urban landscape paintings, but gradually branched out into other terrains, including Machu Picchu and the coastline of Maine, as well as portraits of notable individuals, such as the Chinese American architect I.M. Pei and French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, in the 1980s and 1990s.

By blending multiple viewpoints and layering, Este creates dense, detailed scenes that reward careful viewing. He creates images that are much more sophisticated than they seem at first glance. A compelling record of the urban and natural environment in the late 20th and early 21st century is offered in his realism.

References:

Books

  1. Arthur, J. and Estes, R., 1993. Richard Estes. San Francisco, Calif: Pomegranate Artbooks.

Online sources

  1. En.wikipedia.org. 2022. Richard Estes – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Estes> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
  2. Artsy.net. 2022. Richard Estes – 186 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy. [online] Available at: <https://www.artsy.net/artist/richard-estes> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2022. Richard Estes | Biography, Art, Paintings, & Facts. [online] Available at: <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Estes> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
  4. Smithsonian American Art Museum. 2022. Richard Estes’ Realism. [online] Available at: <https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/estes> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
  5. Louis K. Meisel Gallery. 2022. Richard Estes – Louis K. Meisel Gallery. [online] Available at: <https://www.meiselgallery.com/artist/richard-estes/> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
  6. The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. 2022. The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation. [online] Available at: <https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/richard-estes> [Accessed 6 January 2022].
Author

Kishan Thakkar is an architect based in Ahmedabad exploring creative outlets and entrepreneurship. He is an avid learner who has a penchant for research, analysis and understanding different fields within the architecture and aspires to promote sustainable development. Discipline is the key to balance his diversified interest and work routine.

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