The Frick Collection has, however, come up with a great title for their next show, “The Pursuit of Immortality”. The line after the colon explains exactly what it is about “Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals”. The only common portrait medals today are our coins. Many will know that our quarters have a portrait of the father of our country, George Washington, and that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, is on our pennies but who is on our other coinage?
In any case, these portraits are designated by subsequent generations. Have you ever thought of having a medal made with your own image? I did have a valid stamp printed with my wife and I on it but that is obviously ephemeral, while portrait medals are not.
Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher have been collecting Renaissance (and later) medals for many years, and its almost 25 years since Stephen Scher’s first collaboration with the Frick. In 1994 he curated and also lent to a large exhibition called, “The Currency of Fame, organized by the Frick and the National Gallery. For that show he also borrowed from museums here and abroad. Now the Schers have given 450 medals from their personal treasure trove to the Frick Collection.
In a time without radio, television, newspapers, and certainly no cable how can we know what anyone looked like. It is said that few would have voted for Lincoln if they had seen or heard him in real life.
Antonio di Puccio Pisano, called Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455) is known as the founder of the “modern” medal and a great exponent of that medium. Before he stuck his first medal in 1438 he was known as an important painter. Since he even signed his medals, OPUS PISANI PICTORIS indicating he was a painter first, it shows already then a hierarchy in the arts. When I was at Columbia there was a file cabinet in the hallway outside the library labeled “Minor Arts” that is what the professors at the time thought of any art that was not painting or sculpture, it hasn’t changed much. I would claim that medals are a form of relief sculpture, which can be very exciting in its own right.
There is a medal in the exhibition by Pisanello commissioned by Lionello d’Este (1407-1450) who was Marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena. It was logical to have something pertinent on the reverse. In this case it is two male nudes, one older than the other, both carrying baskets overflowing with olive branches. Aimee NG, Associate Curator at the Frick who authored the catalog and curated the show together with Stephen Sher, interprets this depiction as showing a balance of vitality and caution, symbolizing Lionello’s successful rule.
A later medal by Wouter Muller (1604-1673) of Admiral Maarten Hapertszoon Tromp (1597-1653) and done the year of the artist’s death is hollow, made up of two shell-shaped silver casts soldered together. This unusual form is brought out in the small concise catalog, whose square format is perfectly adapted to illustrate roundels. Opposite the recto portrait and verso depiction of what I presume to be Tromp’s ship, is a view of the medal from the side, where Tromp’s face appears as a profile. It shows how medals are often wonderful relief sculpture.
Lastly, a cup inset with a medal by Jan de Vos (ca.1578-1619), which is an Allegory of Vanitas, or Mememto Mori. It was a common theme in Renaissance art as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. The outside of the cup shows the recto portrait of a handsome young woman but when one finished one’s wine there was the verso, a skull, staring back at you from the interior!
All photographs are compliments of the Frick and taken by Michael Bodycomb. The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow, May 9 and runs through September 10. About 40% of the Scher donation is being shown in the exhibition so we can look forward to further treats in the future.