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Longtime AMNH Diorama Painter Dies at 98

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If you have ever been to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you’ve seen the work of Fred Scherer. A major contributor to the painted backdrops of over a dozen dioramas throughout the museum, the world of natural science lost an important artist when he passed away last week at the age of 98, the Battleboro Reformer reports. A teenager during the Great Depression, Scherer dropped out of high school to paint houses with his brother, while studying at the Art Students League of New York.

On a tip from a neighbor that the AMNH was hiring, Scherer paid the institution a visit in 1934, armed with a handcrafted polar bear that won him an apprenticeship making rocks and plants that only earned him travel and meal expenses. He was promoted to $17/week after only a year — orroughly $230 by today’s rates, not too bad for a 20 year-old painter! — and was able to work with James Perry Wilson, who would become his primary mentor.

“He taught me how to look at things — trees, plants and rocks. One of the big things would be light,” Scherer had said about Wilson. “Through his teaching, it really opened my eyes.”

Scherer developed a personal style incorporating more modern techniques, and while the dioramas were created anonymously as a group, his work was unique.

“Fred’s paintings really stood out. His style, on one level, was about painting everything exactly as it was, but if you look carefully, you could see all this experimentation going on,” fellow museum artist Sean Murtha told the Reformer. “The way he painted makes the paintings sort of glow in their own light.”

Scherer retired to Maine in 1972, but kept working with the Maine State Museum in Augusta while he pursued organic farming.

— Meredith Caraher

(Photo via the American Museum of Natural History/Facebook.)

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  1. Thank you for this article. My father painted 15 dioramas and collaborated on many more… and he did not have any formal art training such as the Art Students League. As a teenager he also painted landscapes with his brothers and participated in a program called the School Art League of New York: where he was awarded two medals for Fine Draughtsmanship and Fine Craftsmanship.

  2. I would like more information about Mr Scherer’s work.
    Are there backdrops no longer being displayed, and if so where are they and what is their state of preservation?
    Did Mr. Scherer do other large backgrounds such as movie set landscapes or theater backdrops?
    A local Vermont organization, Main Street Arts, is very involved with the storage and preservation of these kinds of large works, and promoting them as the works of art so many of them are.
    J. Bryar
    Grafton, Vt

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