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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John A. Ruthven

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 2007, John Ruthven

Not long ago I wrote mentioning something called "niche art."  No, it's not marble statues designed to go into wall niches. Niche art refers to subject matter content of a highly specialized nature. I once painted and sold a lot of cats. I could easily have slipped into the "feline niche."  I chose not to. I found them not challenging enough in the first place and the whole idea of niche art too limiting in any case. I like cats as well as the next guy (we have four of them), but only as well as the next guy; and certainly not well enough to make a career of them. I've painted a few dogs in my time too; and that's also a niche. There are artists who only paint horses. Others paint only flowers. And from what I hear, there may even be artists who paint only goats.

Autumn Woods, 1998, John Ruthven
I suppose there's nothing wrong with an artist filling a niche...or several niches for that matter, if you really love the subject and don't mind the limitations. Moreover, there are also different size niches. One of my best artist friends paints only pet portraits. That, of course, is a much larger niche than just cats, dogs, or horses. And along the line of painting animals, perhaps one of the largest niches of all is that of the wildlife painter; which, like pet portraits, includes a number of smaller niches, namely fish, exotic animals, not-so-exotic animals, and birds. And though he first made a name for himself painting birds, one of the best artists in the wildlife niche is 85-year-old John A. Ruthven.

Dusty--Golden Retriever, 1985,
John Ruthven

Cincinatti artist, John Ruthven (pronounced ROOT-ven) has often been called the "20th Century Audubon." The problem with tags like this is they never say who calls him that...perhaps even the artist himself. Whatever the case, it's an apt comparison. Ruthven's work is accurate, inspiring, technically adept, and beautifully rendered. It is fine art. But unlike some in his niche, it's not photographically real. Backgrounds, if present at all, are kept to a minimum, just as in Audubon's work. There's never a suspicion that he might have used photos. Ruthven spends as much time sketching in the field as painting in his studio. As a result, there is a clarity in his watercolor images seldom found in most other wildlife art.  Some might call it the Ruthven style, but then again, we have to wonder who the "some" might be.

Ruthven's 1960 Duck Stamp winner,
Redhead Ducks
As a result of this "style" there is an illustrative quality to some of his work. When he began as a professional in 1946, this necessarily made him a wildlife illustrator, which may have been when the first connection with Audubon occurred. John James Audubon was very much a wildlife illustrator too. Today the distinction, if there is one, is largely superficial. Ruthven is a wildlife artist. Although he's rendered most of the wildlife of North American his niche within a niche remains birds. He first gained national recognition when he won the Federal Duck Stamp competition in 1960 with his Redhead Ducks (left). This Pulitzer Prize of the wildlife art world created a national demand for his work, and even as his prices rose into the thousands of dollars, he could not keep up. 

So, as many artists have been "forced" to do, Ruthven moved into print reproductions. Fortunately, as a watercolorist, there is little lost in the translation because it's literally exchanging one paper medium for another. In 1971, Ruthven founded Wildlife International' Inc. to publish and distribute his prints. Much of the company's work today is with various wildlife preservation and conservation groups who use his images in public relations and fund raising. In 2004, for his efforts both in art and wildlife preservation, Ruthven was awarded the National Medal of Arts. But lest you think this Georgetown, Ohio artist is just some stuffy old bird-watching brush jockey, Ruthven recently made his debut as a totally different sort of "wildlife" painter. In 2000, he painted a pig. Okay, not a real pig (not even a picture of a pig), though it was somewhat more real than he was used to. It was his entry in Cincinnati art/pig promotion Big Pig Gig. Titled Choo-choo (bottom), it features a face inspired by King Tut and a body inspired by B&O. There's no word on whether Wildlife International will feature a print of this one or not.  Probably not.
Choo-choo, 2000, John Ruthven. The painting has also
been dubbed "Sow Great Thou Art."

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