Born in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, United States, his Hungarian father, Sigmund Benway, left his mother, Jeanne Brooks, shortly after he was born and they were divorced in 1934. His mother was the American-born daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. She worked in a steel mill and as a teacher. She remarried in 1941, to Dr. Walter Kitaj, a Viennese refugee research chemist, and Ronald took his surname. His mother and stepfather were non-practicing Jews. He was educated at Troy High School. He became a merchant seaman with a Norwegian freighter when he was 17. He studied at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna and the Cooper Union in New York City. After serving in the United States Army for two years, in France and Germany, he moved to England to study at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford (1958–59) under the G.I. Bill, where he developed a love of Cézanne, and then at the Royal College of Art in London (1959–61), alongside David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Peter Phillips, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. Richard Wollheim, the philosopher and David Hockneyremained lifelong friends.