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Richard Estes’ Realism

October 10, 2014 – February 8, 2015


  • Browse artworks by Richard Estes in our online gallery, and let us know what you think in the comments
  • Listen to a conversation between exhibition co-curator Patterson Sims and artist Richard Estes
  • Buy the book!
  • Attend exhibition-related public programs
  • Browse an illustrated checklist of artworks in the exhibition
  • Who is talking about the exhibition?

Image for Richard Estes’ Realism

Richard Estes, Diner, 1971, oil on canvas, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Museum purchase 1977. © Richard Estes, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York. Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Richard Estes is considered the foremost practitioner of the international group of artists known loosely as photorealists and has been celebrated for more than forty-five years as the premier painter of American cityscapes. Richard Estes’ Realism is the most comprehensive exhibition of Estes’ paintings ever organized. A master of contemporary realism, Estes is primarily known as a painter of urban scenes. The exhibition features forty-six paintings spanning a fifty-year career, including a number of works from private collections that are rarely seen publically. The exhibition also shows, for the first time, Estes’ panoramic landscape paintings and water scenes alongside his more famous cityscapes, offering new insights into Estes’ particular vision.

Jointly organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, the artworks in Richard Estes’ Realism are selected by Patterson Sims, an independent curator, and Jessica May, chief curator at the Portland Museum of Art. Virginia Mecklenburg, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is coordinating the exhibition in Washington, D.C.

Richard Estes’ Realism is the first complete overview of Estes’s work in the U.S. since 1978. It explores the full range of Estes’ career as a painter, with works from the late 1960s to 2013. Paintings in the exhibition balance Estes’ interest in cities—London, New York, Paris, Tokyo—with luminous sunlit scenes of Venice and Antarctica as well as his explorations of the Maine coast and the woods on Mount Desert Island, where he has spent part of each year since the late 1970s. Recently, Estes has captured nocturnal images of New York City, and several examples are on display. A number of Estes’ rare portraits and self-portraits also are included in the exhibition.

Estes layers and merges multiple viewpoints to create dense and detailed scenes that reward the viewer with careful looking. His images are more sophisticated than they appear to be at first glance. His realism is a compelling record of the appearance of the urban and natural environments in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

A cell phone audio tour is available in the exhibition galleries, with commentary by Betsy Broun, director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Richard Estes; Jessica May; Patterson Sims; and Mark Bessire, director at the Portland Museum of Art.

Richard Estes’ Realism is accompanied by a catalogue with critical essays on Estes’ practice by exhibition co-curators Patterson Sims and Jessica May. The book also includes a detailed chronology by independent art historian Helen Ferrulli. It is distributed by Yale University Press. The book is available for purchase ($40) in the museum store and online.

Free Public Programs
To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, exhibition co-curator Patterson Sims will discuss the life and work of Richard Estes, followed by a conversation with the artist Friday, October 10, at 6 p.m.
Tuesday, December 9, 2014, 5:30 p.m. – Exhibition Gallery Talk
Wednesday, January 7, 2015, 5:30 p.m. – “Contemporary Realism” Gallery Talk with Director Betsy Broun and curator Virginia Mecklenburg

In the News
London Review of Books, January 2015, At the Smithsonian by August Kleinzahler
The Weekly Standard, January 5, 2015, Richard Estes and his Photographic Vision by Amy Henderson
NPR, Morning Edition, December 16, 2014, Painting Or Photograph? With Richard Estes, It's Hard To Tell by Susan Stamberg
WETA’s Around Town discussion of Estes exhibition
Washington City Paper, October 17, 2014,
A master of light and reflection shows his work by Jeffry Cudlin
Smithsonian, October 17, 2014, Richard Estes' Incredibly Realistic Paintings Require a Double Take by Max Kutner
Forbes, October 10, 2014, Revisiting Landscapes Through Richard Estes' Realism by Claire Voon
Antiques & The Arts Weekly , October 7, 2014, Richard Estes’ Realism At Smithsonian American Art Museum by Stephen May
Fast Company, September 24, 2014, Richard Estes’ Paintings Appear More Real Than Photographs by Carey Dunne
The Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2014, Richard Estes: A Modest American Visionary by Ralph Gardner Jr.
The Wall Street Journal, June 30, 2014, More Than Meets the Eye by Tom L. Freudenheim
The Boston Globe, June 7, 2014, Richard Estes’s paintings glow in Portland by Sebastian Smee

National Tour
The exhibition was on view at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine from May 22, 2014 through September 7, 2014 before traveling to Washington, D.C.

Richard Estes' Realism is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art, Maine. The museums thank the following donors for their generous support of the exhibition: Gabrielle Bekink and the Honorable Rudolf Bekink, Isabelle and Scott Black, The Wolf Kahn & Emily Mason Foundation, Thelma and Melvin Lenkin, The Lunder Foundation – Peter and Paula Lunder, Elizabeth Ragland Park Fund of Triangle Community Foundation, Debbie Frank Petersen, the Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation, Holly and Nick Ruffin, and John Wilmerding. The accompanying catalogue is supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Marlborough Gallery and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.