R. B. Kitaj was born in October 1932 in Ohio and grew up with his mother and step-father in New York. He first studied art at the Cooper Union in New York before serving in the US army for two years in Germany and France. His G.I. Bill afforded him the opportunity to study in England where he undertook courses at both the Ruskin School of Fine Art and the Royal College of Art from 1959 to 1961. It was at the latter that he met his lifelong friend, the artist David Hockney. Kitaj remained in London for much of his career, collaborating with emerging British artists including Eduardo Paolozzi and, later, became closely affiliated with the likes of Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. In 1976 Kitaj organised a significant exhibition, The Human Clay, which brought together the figurative works of Auerbach, Bacon, Kossoff and Freud. Kitaj created the term ‘A School of London’ to delineate this new grouping, united by their distinctive approach to figurative painting.
In 1991 Kitaj was elected to the Royal Academy, the first American artist since Singer Sargent and was also awarded the Golden Lion at the 1995 Venice Biennale. Despite this recognition, Kitaj’s later career was blighted by an onslaught of derision from critics which deeply affected him. A Tate retrospective in 1994 was savaged by a number of critics who launched personal attacks on Kitaj and his work. With the death of his second wife, Sandra Fisher soon after, a downcast and disillusioned Kitaj responded to the critics with a 1996 painting, ‘The Critic Kills’ which he signed, ‘Ron and Sandra’. The following year Kitaj moved back to America, stating his reason in a letter to Edward Chaney, "London died for me and I returned home to California to live among sons and grandsons - It was a very good move and now I begin my 3rd and (last?) ACT! Hands across The Sea." It was indeed to be Kitaj’s final act as seven weeks before his 75th birthday in 2007, he committed suicide at his Los Angeles home.
Kitaj’s legacy has continued to be celebrated since his tragic demise with an exhibition held in 2010 at the Yale Center for British Art, a major symposium at the Jewish Museum, Berlin in 2012 which toured to Pallant House in Chichester and The Jewish Museum London. Most recently, the All Too Human show held at the Tate exhibited a number of Kitaj’s works.