Gems in Relief


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Four centuries of portrait medals from the Scher Collection grace the lower galleries of The Frick Collection


Photos



  • Pierre-Jean David d’Angers (1788–1856). "Josephine Bonaparte (1763–1814); Empress Consort of France 1804–10; Queen Consort of Italy 1805–10)," ca. 1832. Gilt copper alloy, cast; 177.8 mm. Scher Collection; promised gift to The Frick Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • Cup inset with Jan de Vos (ca. 1578–after 1619). "Allegory of Vanitas," dated 1614. Silver, with gilding; 128 × 100 × 102 mm (cup), 57 × 44 mm (medal). Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • Cup inset with Jan de Vos (ca. 1578–after 1619). "Allegory of Vanitas," dated 1614. Silver, with gilding; 128 × 100 × 102 mm (cup), 57 × 44 mm (medal). Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • George William de Saulles (1861–1903). "Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, (b. 1819; r. 1837– 1901)," dated 1897. Gold, struck; 55.6 mm. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • George William de Saulles (1861–1903). "Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, (b. 1819; r. 1837– 1901)," dated 1897. Gold, struck; 55.6 mm. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello (ca. 1395–1455), "Cecilia Gonzaga" (1426–1451), dated 1447. Copper alloy, cast; 85.8 mm. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb




  • Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello (ca. 1395–1455), "Cecilia Gonzaga" (1426–1451), dated 1447. Copper alloy, cast; 85.8 mm. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher Collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb



Stephen Scher discovered portrait medals when he was an undergraduate at Yale. He was summering in Florence and spied an antiquary shop, where he was first introduced to the small disks. He held one in his hand, a transformational “magical experience,” he recently told the Frick’s head of publications, Rebecca Brooke. From then on, he was hooked.

He toured the medals collections of museums and made his first purchase in 1957, when he was a graduate student at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. He went on to amass a world-class collection, comprised of nearly 1,000 precious medals and medallions (large medals), dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, 450 of which he and his wife Janie Woo Scher have donated to the Frick. It is the largest gift in the institution’s history.

“The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals” celebrates the Schers’ generosity and the art form that originated in Renaissance Italy in the 15th century and spread to Germany, France, the Netherlands, England and beyond. Magnifying glasses are available in the galleries — grab one to take the full measure of this forgotten art.

“Portrait medals were one of the most important artistic inventions of the Renaissance,” Aimee Ng, who co-curated the exhibit with Stephen Scher, said on a tour. She and the collector selected 130 items to showcase, small-scale — in some cases teeny-tiny — portraits of kings, queens, princes, artists, writers and others among “the wealthy, powerful and culturally influential classes.” Think Queen Victoria, Josephine Bonaparte, Albrecht Dürer and the Medicis.

Medals, associated with awards today, originally functioned mostly to commemorate individuals and events (births, marriages, deaths and, as seen here, historic upheavals such as the French Revolution). They typically featured likenesses of individuals in profile on the front (obverse) and personal imagery on the back (reverse). Borders were often festooned with mottos and elaborate iconography.

“It’s no secret that today modern museum-goers are less familiar with medals as objects of art,” Ng said. “All medals are sculpture — that’s the message of the exhibit.” These objets d’art allowed persons of wealth and status to “shape their identity and circulate it,” she noted — among friends and, in the case of rulers, subjects.

Considered fine art, on a par with painting and sculpture, medals could be carried around and “were intended to be seen and felt, to be turned to catch the light and scrutinized from every angle, claiming attention from both the eyes and hands,” Ng writes in the catalog about these portable gems in relief, which had to be handled to be fully experienced. “They were never meant to be static,” she said.

Museums can’t replicate that experience — the art here is still in cases, and you can’t touch it, save for one reproduction — but the Frick has mounted a very inviting show, with vitrines that you can walk around to survey the front and back of the art, just as if you were viewing a piece of sculpture. A medal by Italian Renaissance sculptor Antico is mounted on what looks like a skewer — turn the handle for a look at both sides.

The painter Antonio di Puccio Pisano (ca. 1395-1455), better known as Pisanello, is usually credited with inventing the portrait medal, though its origins are “more complicated,” Ng states in the catalog, pointing to several predecessors. Pisanello was an innovator, nonetheless, who made the first cast portrait medals of contemporary individuals and, inspired by ancient coins but grounded in modernity, created a new art form.

He produced one of the show’s highlights, a copper medal of Cecilia Gonzaga (1447), a noblewoman who joined a convent rather than submit to an arranged marriage. Displayed in the entrance gallery, her portrait is “a perfect Italian Renaissance image,” according to Scher.

An inscription on the front announces the subject’s chastity: “Virgin Cecilia, daughter of Gianfrancesco I, Marquess of Mantua.” The back trumpets it with an allegorical image of a plucky female holding the horn of a unicorn, which, according to medieval lore, could only be tamed by a virgin. The disk slowly spins for 360-degree views.

There are treasures galore, here. A large gilt copper medallion of Josephine Bonaparte (ca. 1832), Empress Consort of France, by Pierre-Jean David d’Angers is arguably the exhibit’s star attraction. A posthumous portrait, the image looks hyper real. Ng marveled at the “instantaneity” of the work. “It’s as if she just turned her head, to the point where her earring is just swinging back. He just caught that moment,” she said about the piece, which has a very modern vibe.

Sit down in front of the silver wine goblet inset with Jan de Vos’ vanitas medal, “Allegory of Vanitas” (1614), for a full appreciation of this Dutch Golden Age masterpiece. The medal’s obverse portrait of a young woman decorates the outside of the cup. Peer into the cup, and the reverse image of her skeleton appears. The medal’s inscription: “Do not boast of tomorrow” (obverse) ... “Death does not delay” (reverse).

Carpe diem and head over to the show.








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