On Senate Floor, Portman Honors Life of Ohio Naturalist and Wildlife Artist John Ruthven

October 19, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – This evening on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman paid tribute to his friend John Ruthven, a world-renowned wildlife artist and naturalist who died last week at age 95. Portman, a long-time friend of Ruthven, highlighted the numerous awards and honors he achieved in life, including being commissioned for paintings by four sitting U.S. presidents and being the first wildlife artist to be awarded the National Medal of Arts, the highest award an artist can receive from the U.S. government. Ruthven was preceded in death by his wife Judy, and is survived by two children, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.


“I have come to the floor today to pay tribute to John Ruthven, a beloved son of Ohio who passed away last week at the age of 95. John Ruthven was a nationally recognized wildlife artist and a naturalist whose extraordinary artistic skills earned him numerous awards and other recognitions. But it was John’s integrity, his humility, his generosity, and his personal warmth that led to so many admirers. John never met a stranger and even in these strident times, John never had an enemy. He was an eternal optimist who looked for the best in people, and in doing so, brought out the best in everyone.

“John was a true son of Ohio who grew up in Cincinnati as a boy and was often found fishing and hunting and sketching along the Ohio River. He was a lifelong patriot who was very proud of his country and proud of having served his country as an 18-year-old sailor during World War II. And he was generous of spirit and generous in giving back to his community, contributing his time and artwork to literally hundreds of good causes. John loved his family. His kids, Ricky and Kevin, his grandsons Adam and Matt, his great-grandsons William, Jack, and Michael. He lost the love of his life, Judy, just under a decade ago. They were inseparable and they are now together.

“My wife Jane and I feel John’s presence every day through his artwork that hangs on our walls at home and at work. Here in my Washington, D.C. office, we’ve displayed his painting ‘Eagle to the Moon’ for the past decade. A masterpiece of natural painting, signed not just by John, but also John’s good friend, the famous astronaut Neil Armstrong. Each Ruthven painting as its own story and ‘Eagle to the Moon’ is no exception. Ohio Governor James Rhodes had commissioned John to paint an eagle on the moon in honor of the Apollo 11 mission and Neil Armstrong’s famous words ‘The eagle has landed.’

“John told the governor there are no eagles on the moon and as a naturalist painter, he refused to place one there. Governor Rhodes insisted. So John, always a peacemaker, found a compromise. He painted a majestic bald eagle flying past an Ohio buckeye tree, tying the eagle therefore to the Earth and to Ohio. And put a glowing moon in the background to please Governor Rhodes. The governor could not say no to such a beautiful portrayal, and it is beautiful.

“His paintings are displayed in the statehouse in Columbus and in thousands of offices and living rooms all across Ohio and beyond. You will see his work when strolling through my hometown of Cincinnati, where the side of a downtown building displays a three-story-high mural dedicated to Martha, the last passenger pigeon who died at the Cincinnati Zoo. At age 88, high on a rickety scaffolding in the August heat, John Ruthven led the volunteers in creating that rendition of passenger pigeons, taking it from one of his paintings. Those passenger pigeons, once numerous, now extinct, soaring through the air in a thick flock, warning us all of the fragility of nature.

“I will always feel John’s presence, personally, when I’m in the woods of southern Ohio. Where I had the privilege of spending many hours with him, hunting edible wild mushrooms, hunting turkeys and learning from an accomplished naturalist who had stories about every single tree, flower, and bird. It was a joy to learn from John. It wasn’t a lecture. Like every good teacher, John drew you in. John was called a modern-day James Audubon, and there were striking similarities between the two. Both were naturalists, good hunters, artists, and authors whose works were influential in teaching us about the natural world. Like Audobon, John was widely recognized as one of the most important ambassadors for nature of his time.

“Starting with his delivery of a hummingbird to the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History at age 10, his name is on specimens he collected around the world and donated to museums. Four presidents commissioned paintings by John Ruthven and his artwork is hung in the galleries of the Smithsonian and right here in the halls of Congress. Early in his career, John had the great honor of being selected for the artist for the annual federal duck stamp and has been featured in many nature magazines and documentaries. He received numerous awards and honors including from some of his favorite organizations like the Cincinnati Zoo, the Cincinnati Nature Center, the Museum Center and so many others.

“One accolade John was most proud of was when he and his wife Judy were inducted into the Brown County Hall of Fame. Judy and John had a beautiful farm and an art gallery in Brown County, 50 miles east of Cincinnati. They developed lifelong friendships there and dedicated time and energy to their adopted home leading to the restoration of the historic courthouse in Georgetown, Ohio and preserving and promoting the boyhood home of Ulysses S. Grant, one of John’s heroes.

“In 2004, I was with John and President George W. Bush at the White House when he became the first wildlife artist ever to receive the National Medal of the Arts, the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an artist. Until his death, John continued to paint every day at his home studio. He still had a number of commissions he was working on. For countless young artists and lovers of nature, he was and will continue to be a true inspiration. As we mourn our loss, we take heart in knowing that we will all continue to feel his presence, that John Ruthven will live on through his masterful artwork, his loving family and all he did to advance the cause of appreciating and protecting the natural world.”