Richard Estes’s Paintings Appear More Real Than Photographs

A retrospective of Estes’s photorealistic paintings features panoramas more luminous and detailed than what many cameras can capture.

With so many art critics declaring painting dead, photorealism can seem especially unfashionable, if not downright outdated. But American artist Richard Estes has managed to keep his luminous, hyperrealistic landscapes and cityscapes relevant in an art world often dominated by abstraction and a skepticism that photorealism can offer anything that actual photographs can’t.


Richard Estes’ Realism, the most comprehensive exhibit of the 82-year-old painter’s work ever organized, opens October 10th at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It features 50 paintings, from his first New York City panoramas from the late 1960s, when he first rose to fame, to vistas of Maine’s Mount Desert Island, where he spends part of every year, painted in the 2000s. While Estes is clearly a technical virtuoso–his ability to accurately render the minute complexities of both a reflection in a window and the scene behind it, for example, is unparalleled–there’s more to his paintings than the “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-photo” wow factor. “Estes plays with light, reflection, and perspective in ways that photography doesn’t,” curator Virginia Mecklenburg tells Co.Design.

Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building, 1966–67Richard Estes/Marlborough Gallery, New York/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Photo: Luc Demers

Estes’s painting process begins with multiple photographs of a single scene. Though it might seem at first glance that verisimilitude is the painter’s priority, he’s actually manipulating: he takes trash off sidewalks, he makes light even brighter. In many paintings, like “Waverly Place” (1980), of the famous Greenwich Village intersection, Estes cobbles together panoramas so wide that neither a camera lens nor a human eye could capture them from a single vantage point in their real-world entirety. This makes the paintings, when viewed in person, feel larger-than-life, with dramatic visual impact. “They generate a visceral feeling that the photographic eye doesn’t capture,” Mecklenburg says. “They go to a place photography doesn’t.”

Estes’s brush also affords more detail on a given scene than your unaided vision or a photograph does: “Normally, when you look out window, things that are closest to you seem to be in minute, crystalline detail, while things farther away are fuzzy,” Mecklenburg says. The backgrounds of photographs, too, often lack focus. “But in these paintings, everything has equal visual weight. Something at the end of the block has equal detail as something in front of you.” This creates a sense of hyperreality, raising questions about how vision and perception work, and, more metaphysically, about what is real and what is illusion.

Click the slide show above for highlights from the exhibit, from his Brooklyn Bridge panorama to a gorgeous nocturne of Manhattan’s Columbus Circle.

Richard Estes’ Realism opens October 10th at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.