Ruel Pardee Tolman (1878-1954) was born in Brookfield, Vermont. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1902, he moved to Washington and attended the Corcoran School of Art. In 1906 he studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York. He taught classes at the Corcoran from 1906 until 1919. His association with the Smithsonian began in 1912 when he joined the Division of Graphic Arts of the U.S. National Museum (USNM) as a preparator. He became an aide in 1913, assistant curator in 1920, and curator in 1932. From 1932-1946 he also occupied the position of acting director of the National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA - known as the National Gallery of Art until 1937). Appointed director in 1946, he spent two years in the position and retired in 1948.
Tolman was a practicing graphic artist, working in lithography, etching, mezzotint, drypoint, oil paint, and watercolor. He was active in the Washington art community and was a nationally recognized painter of miniatures. His work included 26 miniature portraits of U.S. presidents and governors. He was founder and president of the Miniature Painters, Sculpturers and Gravers Society of Washington. In 1909, he obtained a patent for an artist's wet-canvas carrier.
During the period 1923-1946 Tolman organized a series of monthly exhibits at the Smithsonian of work by living artists. He also developed the traveling series "How Prints are Made" which circulated through the United States for two decades.
His publications included journal articles on graphic art, American art and American miniature painters; biographical articles for the Dictionary of American Biography; and catalogs and reports relating to the collections of the Division of Graphic Arts and the NCFA. His major work, The Life and Work of Edward Greene Malbone, Miniature Painter, was published in 1958 by the New York Historical Society.
He died on August 24, 1954. His wife, Nelly Summerel McKenzie Tolman, died in August of 1961. His daughter, Sarah Bruner Tolman Kemper, lives in Arlington.