Best known for his complex photo-realistic scenes of urban environments, Richard Estes (b. 1932) rarely painted portraits, except for a few images of close friends. Portrait of I. M. Pei (1996) is the first painting by Estes to enter the collection, where it joins 34 prints by the artist. The work is as much a portrait of the Gallery’s Study Center as it is a portrait of the architect.
Portrait of I. M. Pei is unique among Estes’s art because it combines a portrait with complex architectural forms. In 1995 Dodge Thompson, chief of exhibitions at the Gallery, approached Estes to paint a portrait of Pei (1917–2019), who was the architect of the East Building. Ian M. Cumming, a patron of the Gallery, and John Wilmerding, the Gallery’s deputy director, encouraged Estes to paint the portrait against the setting of the East Building.
In 1967 Andrew Mellon’s children, Paul Mellon and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, offered funds for a second National Gallery of Art building, and Pei was selected to design it. The modernist structure he conceived was inspired and informed by its trapezoidal site, located between Pennsylvania Avenue and the National Mall and between Third and Fourth Streets NW. Pei designed the East Building as two triangles—one to hold a library, offices, and community of scholars and the other as public gallery space for the permanent collection and exhibitions. Pei linked his design for the East Building to John Russell Pope’s neoclassical design of the West Building by using the same Tennessee pink marble to clad the exterior. Construction of the East Building began in 1971, and on June 1, 1978, Paul Mellon and President Jimmy Carter dedicated the new museum to the people of the United States.