John Ruthven, World-Famous Wildlife Artist, and his Withrow Roots


by Bob Linnenberg ’63

Last October, Withrow lost a great friend and benefactor in alumni John A. Ruthven. Former Tower News cartoonist, author, conservationist, lecturer, philanthropist, and world-renowned wildlife artist, John was a member of the class of 1943. Drafted as soon as he turned 18 in late 1942, John went to war instead of graduating with his classmates. Upon returning home from the Navy in 1946, as a result of credits earned while serving, John finally received his Withrow diploma. He then entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

John soon opened up shop and began his career as an illustrator. His cartoon skills came in handy when he created the Play-Doh Boy appearing on the original cans of Play-Doh. In 1959, his painting Redhead Ducks won the Federal Duck Stamp competition and brought him national attention. Later, John painted the cardinal that appeared on Ruthven PigeonsOhio’s most popular license plate. He was commissioned to do an entire series of bird prints for Colonial Williamsburg, one of his most popular. Often referred to as the “20th-century Audubon”, his wildlife paintings are on display at many museums, including the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian Institution. One more recent endeavor was the creation of the Passenger Pigeon mural on the wall of a five-story building in downtown Cincinnati, which John, then 88 years old, helped to paint.

Numerous accolades and honors
John has been honored by many organizations for his artistic and philanthropic works. Some of these include the Ohio Arts Council, The Garden Club of America, and the Museum of Natural History of the Cincinnati Museum Center. In 1999, John was named a Great Living Cincinnatian by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. In addition, the Withrow graduate has been honored with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Miami University and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the University of Cincinnati. John was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2004 from President George W. Bush.

Countless contributions to Withrow
John’s contributions to his alma mater were boundless. In 1979 he permitted the use of his painting of a prancing tiger from his Safari Series to be used as the cover of the Withrow Annual. This Annual is in such high demand and so scarce that the Alumni office has only one copy. In 1998 John completed the painting known as Mother Tiger. The painting, dedicated to the memory of Marlene Meyer Holwadel, ’50, one of the founders of the Alumni Association, was sold, and the proceeds from that sale and from the sale of prints and notecards, all went to Withrow Alumni, Inc. A print of this painting now hangs in the main hall. In 1999 John designed the Special Tiger plaque on which the names of major donors to the Alumni Association are listed. John later designed the World War II plaque which lists all Withrow alumni who gave their lives in that conflict. In addition, John donated many framed prints of birds and tigers to the Alumni Association to be sold. Many of these works of art now adorn the walls of Withrow hallways and the Alumni Center, which is located in the old library. John was active in the original Friends of Withrow organization and served on the Board of Withrow Alumni, Inc. for many years.

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