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Realist Painter Richard McLean Dies at Age 79

The Castro Valley resident passed away after an extended illness.

Self-portrait of Richard McLean
Self-portrait of Richard McLean
Information provided by Mark Dean Johnson, College of Liberal & Creative Arts, San Francisco State University—

Renowned realist painter and San Francisco State University Professor Emeritus of Art Richard McLean died at age 79 on January 3, after an extended illness.

McLean was born in 1934 in Hoquiam, Washington, and grew up in Idaho. In 1958 he received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he studied with Richard Diebenkorn, and then served in the military in Okinawa before finishing his Master of Fine Arts at Mills College in 1962. 

He first began exhibiting his work in 1957 with a solo exhibition at the legendary Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco and inclusion in two group exhibitions at the Oakland Museum. He was closely associated with the first generation of photo-realist painters and became best known for his meticulous paintings of horses, a series he began in 1967. 

His work was included in many key international exhibitions, including Twenty-Two Realists at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1970) and Documenta 5 (1972) in Kassel, Germany. In 2012, his work was celebrated in a retrospective “Master Artist Tribute” exhibition at the Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art in Moraga.

Works by McLean are in permanent collections of institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Oakland Museum of California; and Smithsonian American Art Museum. His work has also been featured in scores of publications.

McLean was hired to teach painting and drawing at San Francisco State in 1965 and he remained on the faculty until retiring in 1996. His classes in life drawing were always popular, featuring beautiful setups and dramatic spotlighting, and he produced many gorgeous drawings working alongside his students while offering feedback with self-effacing and very dry humor.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 60 years, Darlene, and his children Ian and Caitlin. He is also much admired by generations of fellow artists and the thousands of students he trained at SF State.

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