Painter, printmaker and draughtsman R. B. (Ronald Brooks) Kitaj was born to a Hungarian father and an American mother (of Russian-Jewish immigrant parentage) in Cleveland, Ohio, USA on 29 October 1932. After his parents divorced, his mother married Walter Kitaj, a Viennese-Jewish refugee and research chemist, and Kitaj took his stepfather's name. Following an early career as a merchant seaman, he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and at Cooper Union in New York. He served in the US army for two years, travelling widely in France and Germany, before moving to England to complete his training at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford (1958-59) and the Royal College of Art, London (1959-61), alongside David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield, among others. His first solo exhibition was held at Marlborough Fine Art, London in 1963 and his early work, executed in bright, flat colours was associated with the Pop Art Movement. In his later years (particularly after his second marriage to fellow painter Sandra Fisher), he made numerous works exploring his Jewish identity. During the 1960s he taught at Ealing Art College, Camberwell School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, and latterly, at the University of California, Berkeley in 1968. In 1976 Kitaj selected work by a group of British figurative painters, whom he described as representing a 'School of London' for an important exhibition entitled 'The Human Clay', organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and held at the Hayward Gallery, London. This much-debated term has come to apply to a fixed group including Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Leon Kossoff, as well as Kitaj himself.

In 1982 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982 and he became a Royal Academician in 1985. Following a sharply critical response to his 1994 Tate exhibition and the sudden death of his wife only weeks after its opening, Kitaj relocated to Los Angeles in 1997. Debilitated by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, he committed suicide in Los Angeles, USA on 21 October 2007. His work is represented in numerous UK collections including the British Council Collection, Pallant House Gallery, Tate, the Yale Center for British Art and the Whitworth and in international collections including MoMA.