Rackstraw Downes was born in Kent, England in 1939. Often described as a realist painter, Downes prefers not to use that term. He views the act of seeing and the art of representation as culturally taught, with different cultures accepting different delineations of the world as realistic. He does not think of himself as a landscape painter, but as a painter of his surroundings—his environment. Often painted in a panoramic format, Downes’s images evince careful attention to details as well as to broad expanses of their surroundings.
Created plein air in locations as diverse as metropolitan New York, rural Maine, and coastal and inland Texas, and without resorting to the use of photography, his compositions feature horizons that bend according to the way the eye naturally perceives. Downes often works in series, examining single scenes from multiple angles, over time, and in the process reveals changing qualities of light and shadow as well as changes in his own point of view.
Rackstraw Downes earned a BA from Cambridge University (1961) and a BFA and MFA from Yale University (1964). He has received numerous awards, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (2009); John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (1988); and National Endowment for the Arts Grant (1980). He was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1999). His works are in the public collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Art Institute of Chicago, among many others. Rackstraw Downes lives in New York City and Presidio, Texas.