Richard Estes’ Realism

Richard Estes painting of a diner

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 publicly. 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.

Visiting Information

October 9, 2014 February 8, 2015
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission


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.

Exhibition Catalogue

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.

Online Gallery


Richard Estes
born Kewanee, IL 1932

Born in 1932 in Kewanee, Illinois, Richard Estes studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952 to 1956. During the next decade he worked as a commercial illustrator and layout artist, first in Chicago and then New York, where he moved in 1958.