Cincinnati Museum Center to publish memoirs of wildlife artist John A. Ruthven

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) announced it will be publishing the memoirs of John A. Ruthven, one of the nation’s foremost wildlife artists. The memoirs are due out in fall 2019.

“In my lifetime, Cincinnati Museum Center and its predecessor organizations have been instrumental in helping me pursue and realize the dreams I had as a young boy,” said Ruthven. “The institution continues to have that impact today and I hope my memoirs will help another child pursue their love of nature and be a positive force in its conservation.”

Ruthven has a long history with CMC, beginning when he was a young boy in the 1930s. He was a regular visitor to the Natural History Museum at its previous location in the Ohio Mechanics Institute on Central Parkway. At 10 years of age, Ruthven brought his first specimen to the museum – a hummingbird he had found dead and hoped might be of interest to the museum. It was the first of hundreds of specimens from around the world he has contributed to the museum over his career. What endeared Ruthven to Museum Director Ralph Dury was the delivery to the museum of the important Brant Collection containing thousands of bird specimens. Ruthven had negotiated the transfer of the collection from the University of Cincinnati to the museum on the eve of its sale, ensuring the priceless asset would remain in the city.

Ruthven served with the United States Navy in World War II, returning home to study at the Cincinnati Art Academy and open his own art studio. CMC’s collections served as a valuable resource, allowing Ruthven to use real bird specimens to inform his paintings, often painted in the style of his inspiration: John James Audubon. The link between the two may not be so accidental. Audubon was the first salaried employee of the Western History Society in 1819, the predecessor to the very Natural History Museum that encouraged young John Ruthven’s pursuit of wonder in the natural world.

As a longtime member of the Explorer’s Club , Ruthven’s love of nature has carried him on expeditions around the globe. Ruthven convinced the Board of the Natural History Museum that they should not only present the results of research but actively engage in scientific research, contributing its own findings to the scientific community. With Ruthven’s encouragement, the Natural History Museum organized a trip to the Philippines, accompanied by Ruthven himself, where the Panay-striped Babbler, a bird new to science, was discovered. His original watercolor painting of the bird is on display at CMC. Ruthven also made several trips to Arkansas and the panhandle of Florida in search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, thought to be extinct for over 50 years.

“The highest compliment that I can pay to John Ruthven is to call him the 20th century Audubon, a premier painter of wildlife that imbues his subjects with life and exquisite detail,” says Elizabeth Pierce, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “A product of the Natural History Museum in his youth, John has been an advocate and resource for Cincinnati Museum Center his entire life and we are thrilled to help him share his story.”

Throughout his career, Ruthven’s watercolor paintings have garnered accolades at all levels. His “Redhead Ducks” painting won the 1960-1961 Federal Duck Stamp competition. He has been commissioned for artwork on behalf of the state of Ohio, including the 1996 and 2016 license plates. In 2004 he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of the Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts, the first wildlife artist to receive the award, “for his impeccably accurate and unfailingly beautiful wildlife art, and in recognition of his contributions as an artist and naturalist in conserving our natural treasures.” He has also presented three different paintings of a bald eagle to U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

His paintings are on display in museums and universities across the country, including the Smithsonian Institution, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Miami University and Ohio University . He painted “Eagle to the Moon” to commemorate Neil Armstrong’s moon landing, which is now at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum. Ruthven has also creating paintings and prints for the Cincinnati Bengals, Cincinnati Observatory, Hamilton County SPCA, the Fine Arts Fund (now ArtsWave) and Colonial Williamsburg.

Recently Ruthven was commissioned to create a piece for the U.S.O. , an honor for the World War II Navy veteran. He was invited to the Pentagon to share the sketch he had created and, while in Washington, DC, visited soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The acrylic painting, titled “Wings of Freedom,” featured a bald eagle in front of a waving American flag. A limited number of 1000 signed prints were sold in support of the U.S.O.

Cincinnatians may be most familiar with Ruthven’s three-story “Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon” mural at the corner of Vine and Seventh streets. The original painting was created to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Martha’s death, and the extinction of the species, in 1914. ArtWorks headed the project and Ruthven climbed the scaffolding with student artists to create the tribute to the last passenger pigeon.

In addition to painting, Ruthven researched the life of Joseph Mason, a Cincinnati portraitist who painted 50 of Audubon’s backgrounds for his famous Elephant Folio Birds of America. During his research, Ruthven located Mason’s unmarked grave at Spring Grove Cemetery. He designed and placed a flat bronzed marker to honor Mason’s life.

2019 is the perfect year for the publication of Ruthven’s memoirs as it coincides closely with both the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Western History Society and the 200th anniversary of Audubon’s tenure as its first salaried employee. In celebration of Audubon’s legacy with the museum, CMC is planning a special exhibition featuring works from Audubon, Ruthven and contemporary artists inspired by their styles and legacies. The special exhibition will also open in the fall of 2019.

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John A. Ruthven