Master Diorama Painter Fred Scherer dies at 98

Through his true-to-life, scaled-down recreations of the environment, the painter and sculptor created a unique window from which to consider the natural world.

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December 13, 2013
by Sophie Moorcock
Artists James Perry Wilson (standing) and Fred Scherer working together on the Upper Nile diorama background painting, 1939. ©AMNH
Artists James Perry Wilson (standing) and Fred Scherer working together on the Upper Nile diorama background painting, 1939. ©AMNH

Fred Scherer, famed for his refinement of the technique of diorama painting, has died aged 98 in Vermont, US, on November 25.

From the 1930s, Scherer created the backgrounds to three-dimensionsal exhibits with the American Museum of Natural History. His unique methods of arranging objects against evocative, sweeping landscapes are credited as revolutionizing the form.

“My father was a renaissance man and could work with all mediums,” Scherer’s daughter Deidre Scherer said. “He was interested in the body of air between the foreground and the background, in trying to replicate its vibration. He created a seamless illusion and took in all views of a scene to make the illusion complete.”

Twenty years before David Attenborough’s broadcasts were to grace U.K.  screens, Scherer’s work displayed wildlife in natural environments, offering audiences the rare and unprecedented opportunity to imagine animals in situ.

Initially a scenery-making apprentice, Scherer soon went on to extrapolate the creative potential of the diorama. With a precise attention to scientific accuracy, the painter was able to create a unique depth of perspective  in his recreation of texture and light. Many of the animals featured in the exhibits were made by him.

“The work was mathematically gridded and calculated to allow for the distortion created by painting on a curved canvas,” said Stephen C Quinn, an American Museum of Natural History associate said. “And yet it was poetic. Fred Scherer has left a great artistic legacy. His works are, and will always be, powerful tools for nurturing appreciation and love for the environment”.

Scherer’s wife, painter Cicely Aikman Scherer has also died eleven days after the death of her husband. The couple met at the American Museum of Natural History.