Richard Ellis, artist behind a life-size blue whale, dies at 86 (2024)

Long before he helped design a life-size blue whale for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Richard Ellis was enchanted with the ocean and the mysterious creatures that swam in its depths.

Growing up in Belle Harbor, on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, he was either playing in the waves or dreaming of the sea. “I would be sitting in class, learning about the Revolutionary War — except I was drawing swordfish,” he once said. “I didn’t think this was going to mark the beginning of my career, but it did.”

An author, artist and marine conservationist, Mr. Ellis drew or wrote a book about seemingly every fish in the sea, helping to introduce a general audience (including landlubbers who couldn’t tell a dolphin from a porpoise) to the wonders of sharks, whales, squid and plesiosaurs, one of many prehistoric giants that captured his imagination and inspired him to pick up a brush and pen.

Mr. Ellis was almost entirely self-taught, with no advanced degrees, no formal scientific background and no artistic training. But beginning in the mid-1970s, years before underwater photography became widespread, he helped demystify the world’s oceans with his naturalistic paintings and accessible, fact-filled books.


Reviewing one of his rare works on a four-legged animal — “On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear” (2009) — British journalist Simon Winchester declared that Mr. Ellis had established himself as the “reigning poet laureate of the marine world.”

“I love these animals,” Mr. Ellis told the New York Times a few years later, discussing his affection for sharks, fish and other underwater creatures. “I don’t want them maligned. I don’t want them killed. I don’t want them misunderstood. And it became my job, my passion, to eliminate the misunderstandings.”

Mr. Ellis, who died May 21 at 86, expanded his conservation efforts through his work for museums, curating exhibits on marine life and crafting permanent installations that evoked the grandeur of the seas. His large-scale works include a 35-foot-long whale mural for what is now the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, as well as a 100-foot-long mural of Moby Dick, the giant sperm whale that torments Captain Ahab, for the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.

Perhaps his greatest creation (and indisputably his biggest) is the 10-ton, 94-foot model blue whale that still hangs at the American Museum of Natural History. Built for the museum’s 100th anniversary in 1969, the installation has become a beloved centerpiece of the Hall of Ocean Life, awing visitors with its lifelike depiction of an arched, diving blue whale, the world’s largest animal.

Mr. Ellis was “instrumental in the design of the whale,” according to Ellen V. Futter, a former president of the natural history museum. In a phone interview, she described the installation as “one of the most memorable icons in a city that is blessed with great icons,” adding that “it created a great sense of wonder, and that’s the first predicate for opening people’s minds and making them want to learn.”

When he started on the project, Mr. Ellis was about 30, with experience designing exhibits for Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences.


“I thought, ‘Okay, how hard can it be? There must be all kinds of pictures,’” he recalled.

But he discovered that the only pictures of blue whales were pictures of dead whales, which he tracked down while also seeking out skeletons, drawings and eyewitness descriptions to improve the accuracy of his design.

It took three months to build the finished model, which was made of foam, fiberglass and steel and was updated by the museum more than 30 years later, painted with a lighter, more accurate shade of blue and revamped with more anatomically correct details (including a new belly button) that resulted from decades of new whale footage and photos.

Over the next few years, Mr. Ellis embraced marine art as a calling and a profession, painting sharks for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and whales for Audubon magazine. He also turned to writing with “The Book of Sharks” (1975), which he researched while making himself “an all-purpose nuisance,” as he put it, at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Narragansett Lab in Rhode Island. There, he befriended scientists and enlisted their help in performing an autopsy on a baby great white that had been caught by local fishermen.

Buoyed by the success of Steven Spielberg’s film “Jaws,” which was released the same year, the book went through multiple printings and was acclaimed by reviewers including Jim Harrison in the Times, who praised Mr. Ellis’s “striking, almost surreal” paintings and called “The Book of Sharks” “a tonic or emetic for all the recent bilge published about” the fish. (“Jaws” had been based on a novel by Peter Benchley, who bought one of Mr. Ellis’s shark paintings and became a friend and fishing companion, even as Mr. Ellis criticized the novel for giving sharks a bad name.)

For the next few decades, Mr. Ellis traveled the world to research his books and paintings, at times accompanied by his two young children. He traipsed across the Galapagos over Christmas, went whale watching in Newfoundland and dove with great whites off the coast of South Australia, an experience that filled him with awe and terror.

“At first, because you know it’s the largest predatory fish on the planet, you experience some fear and trembling,” he told the Indianapolis News of his cage dives with white sharks. “Then you start making up excuses for other things to do.”

He also found plenty of research opportunities close to New York City, where he lived for most of his life. When a 23-foot sperm whale beached itself near Fire Island in 1981, Mr. Ellis and a crew of volunteers spent nine days nursing the animal, feeding it “squid laced with penicillin,” according to one report, before it made a recovery and returned to open water.


The episode gave Mr. Ellis, who had published “The Book of Whales” the previous year, a chance to study a sperm whale up close, and strengthened his bond with an endangered animal that he sought to protect while serving as a U.S. delegate to the International Whaling Commission. With encouragement from Mr. Ellis and other conservationists, the group implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling.

“He had this exceptional blend,” said Futter, the former museum president, “where his artistic talent and skill met with his passion and conviction as a naturalist to protect the planet and the species on it.”

Mr. Ellis, she added, “made everybody a believer in protecting the planet.”

The older of two sons, Richard Ellis was born in New York City on April 2, 1938. Both his parents trained as lawyers, although neither practiced. His mother, who became a homemaker, made headlines in the local papers after receiving special permission to take the bar exam before turning 21. His father worked at the United Transformer Corporation.


Mr. Ellis graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, receiving a bachelor’s degree in American civilization. He served for two years in the Army — he was stationed in Hawaii, where he spent his free time surfing and driving a convertible — and worked in Philadelphia before coming to the American Museum of Natural History. At the museum, he rose to become a research associate in vertebrate paleontology.

Over the years, he contributed paintings and articles to magazines including National Geographic and New York; wrote scripts about whales for PBS; and published some two-dozen books, including “No Turning Back: The Life and Death of Animal Species” (2004) and “Tuna: A Love Story” (2008).

Mr. Ellis’s marriage to Anna Kneeland, with whom he had two children, ended in divorce. His death, from cardiac arrest at an assisted-living center in Norwood, N.J., was confirmed by his daughter, Elizabeth Ellis.


She survives him, along with his son, Timo Ellis; Stephanie W. Guest, his partner since 1989; Guest’s children Victoria, Vanessa, Fred and Andrew; a brother; and six grandchildren.

Looking back on his career, Mr. Ellis seemed flabbergasted by his good fortune, especially when it came to growing up on the ocean and encountering sea creatures almost from birth.

“They were handed to me on a platter, these animals that are misunderstood or hunted to extinction or whatever was happening to them,” he told the Times. “I thought: ‘Great. Thank you. Thank you for giving them to me.’”

Richard Ellis, artist behind a life-size blue whale, dies at 86 (2024)


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