In The Background: Art You May Never Notice

Dec 14, 2013
Originally published on December 17, 2013 11:31 pm

You've probably never heard of painter Fred F. Scherer. If you've ever been to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, though, you may have seen his paintings — probably without realizing it.

Scherer died at age 98 a few weeks ago. His art — those big murals you see behind taxidermic animals in museum dioramas — deserves a closer look.

We visited the AMNH to photograph some of the installations containing his paintings, and spoke with Stephen C. Quinn, who recently retired as an artist from the museum, and knew Scherer well.

"Fred worked at the museum at the golden age of diorama production," Quinn says. "He started at age 19 and worked as an apprentice on the famed Mountain Gorilla diorama."

Most of Scherer's paintings were created between the 1940s and '60s — at a time when city-dwellers may have had little access to nature. Museum artists like Scherer worked to bring nature alive indoors.

According to Quinn, Scherer was one of many working in this genre that went back decades — "to a time that preceded really good photography."

Around the turn of the last century, Quinn says, "it's safe to say that people saw animals and nature as a vast resource that could never run out."

But with the Industrial Revolution underway, and the crowding of city centers, "the only way to really to connect people with the wonder of nature would be to recreate it inside the museum — and the diorama was the medium of choice."

In other words: To get people to care about nature, someone would have to bring nature to people. That's when museums as we know them today began to spring up. "No longer just the collections of wealthy travelers," Quinn says, but institutions with intentions to teach science and an appreciation for nature.

Field work was an important practice not only for scientists, but also for naturalist artists like Scherer, who "worked directly from the landscape to interpret values and light and shadow," Quinn says.

"So he was very much a very academic and renaissance man in what he understood about art and nature."

Fast-forward to today: Are these paintings out of vogue? Do museum artists still exist? Is the original mission of bringing nature "to the people" more easily accomplished with photos and videos?

"You can look at the great landscape and wildlife painter of the past," Quinn says, "and there's something in their art that you can't find in the new generation of artists. Because it comes not from a technical process, but it really comes from the heart and soul of the individual being so in love with nature — that their work is imbued with that nature."

"Facts are interesting and important," Quinn says, "but ... as these early curators, artists and scientists realized, to really motivate and generate concern, it's got to be based on data, but you've got to touch the heart and passion of the person."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. We recently learned of the death of Fred Scherer. Now, you may not know his name but if you visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, you know his work. He painted the famous dioramas for many of the scenes of animals and birds there.

Stephen Quinn, who is also a diorama artist for the museum, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Quinn.

STEPHEN QUINN: Thank you, Scott. It's a great honor to be asked to speak on Fred's behalf.

SIMON: What were some of his signature works that people might have seen in the museum?

QUINN: Fred worked at the museum during the golden age of diorama production, so his work appears in all of the major, top diorama halls in the museum.

SIMON: What are some scenes we might recognize?

QUINN: Well, he started as a young man - about 19 years old - and worked as an apprentice in the famed Mountain Gorilla diorama. His solo works, though, are down in the North American Mammals Hall - the white-tailed deer diorama, which is a spectacular scene depicting Harriman State Park. He also painted, on his own, the Colobus monkey diorama, which depicts mountain region in Africa known as the Aberdare National Park. And in North American Birds, he did several of those smaller dioramas that feature game birds and waterfowl.

SIMON: What set his work apart?

QUINN: He based all of his paintings on accurate and thorough field study and working from his field sketches. He studied under James Perry Wilson, who was a famed American museum background painter; and understood from Wilson that the human eye perceives color differently from a camera, and is rendered differently by the artist than on film and also, worked directly from the landscape to interpret values and light and shadows. So he was very much an academic, and a renaissance man in what he understood about art and nature.

SIMON: What was he like - Fred Scherer?

QUINN: Fred Scherer was a remarkable person. He was a very kind, gentle, humble man; and very willing to share all of his methods and techniques with us younger guys that were hired in later on.

SIMON: Did he influence your work, do you think?

QUINN: Oh, absolutely. Definitely. When I started, I started work in 1974 through a New York State Council on the Arts program. And Fred had just retired but would visit the museum and come by, and he was always held in high esteem. And all of us new artists would seek him out and ask for help and advice in how to plot distortion, or how to work with color and how to paint outdoors. So he was always a very kind resource for us.

SIMON: Is this kind of art disappearing, in an age of IMAX film and other video technologies?

QUINN: When I had first started in 1974, it was the end of the period where natural history museum designers had viewed dioramas as old-fashioned and passe. But as it turned out, nothing really does what the natural history diorama does as effectively. So for a while there, it was perceived as old-fashioned but thankfully, at least the American museum realizes the rich resource and unique works of art they are. And they're taking steps now to conserve and protect them, and also still producing them.

SIMON: Stephen Quinn, naturalist and artist for the American Museum of Natural History. Thanks so much for being with us.

QUINN: My pleasure, Mr. Simon.

SIMON: And just 11 days after the death of Fred Scherer, his wife and fellow artist, Cicely Aikman Scherer, died. They met and fell in love at the American Museum of Natural History, where she worked as a librarian; and they married in 1969. If you visit our website today, you can see beautiful photos that were taken of some of the late Fred Scherer's work, dioramas of mountain gorillas and waterfowl. That's at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.