Ms. Cleary died Nov. 26 at her home in the District at age 69. She had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said her husband, F. Steven Kijek.
Since the 1970s, Ms. Cleary — whose first name is pronounced “muh-NAHN” — had been at the center of a group of artists in Adams Morgan. She exhibited her meticulous artwork throughout the city and around the world, but she also became known for her striking presence, her colorful love life and the rats she kept as pets.
As an artist, Ms. Cleary borrowed classical techniques from her deep study of Renaissance masters to create paintings and drawings memorable for their frank realism and sometimes disturbing themes.
In addition to her many nude self-portraits, Ms. Cleary made erotically charged paintings of flowers. She took inspiration from a painful personal history in a series of works depicting the terror of rape and, in later years, of not being able to breathe without mechanical assistance.
Critics considered her a leading figurative artist of the photo-realist school, in which painters render their subjects with camera-like precision. In fact, Ms. Cleary occasionally won awards for photography when adjudicators didn’t realize her works were free-hand creations.
She was “widely acknowledged to be among the best, if not the best, of the city’s figurative painters,” Washington Post critic Michael O’Sullivan wrote in 2006. “There is a tension between the cool, clinical detachment of photography and painting’s warm idealization of form.”
Ms. Cleary exhibited her art in galleries and museums from Moscow to Paris to Hickory, N.C., but Washington was her home for the past 42 years.
In 1974, she settled in the decrepit Beverly Court apartments on Columbia Road NW, where a coterie of artists soon grew up around her. She painted her walls purple, and her fourth-floor apartment — even with the pet rats — became something of a bohemian salon.
“She was a star,” painter Judy Jashinsky told the Washington City Paper in 2004. “She was stunning, beautiful; long, brownish–black hair; real thin; wore . . . little sundresses and sandals. She was just very cool, and there was always a crowd around her.”
Ms. Cleary had a long list of male admirers, including several whose confrontational attempts at “performance art” led to their arrests. She had a brief marriage in 1981 to a Danish artist known as Tommy — “just Tommy,” Ms. Cleary said — whom she divorced in less than a year.
As a kind of graphic homage to her various lovers, Ms. Cleary made a series of intimately revealing portraits that were featured years later on the HBO program “Real Sex.”