In The Background: Art You May Never Notice Why that unassuming museum art — which you'll find behind taxidermic bison and birds — deserves a closer look.
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In The Background: Art You May Never Notice

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In The Background: Art You May Never Notice

In The Background: Art You May Never Notice

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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

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