The portrait medal is one of the most important artistic inventions of the Renaissance and an essential part of the history of portraiture in western art. Inspired by ancient coins, medals were created primarily to commemorate individuals and events. Typically, the front (called the obverse) bears a portrait of an individual, and the back (or reverse) presents associated imagery and text, such as a heraldic device, personal allegory, emblem, or narrative scene. All kinds of artists produced medals — painters, printmakers, sculptors, and gold- and silversmiths. The art form flourished across Europe in the fifteenth through the nineteenth century. As it did, the making, form, and function of medals varied widely.
The Scher Collection is the finest and most significant of its kind in private hands. Stephen K. and Janie Woo Scher have generously given a substantial portion of their collection — about 450 medals — to The Frick Collection, the largest gift in the museum’s history. The Pursuit of Immortality celebrated this gift, presenting about 130 masterpieces from the collection.
The exhibition traced the story of the portrait medal from its beginnings in Renaissance Italy through its histories in various European regions, including present-day Germany, France, England, and the Netherlands. A small but significant grouping illuminated the art of the medal in Russia, Scandinavia, and North America. Because national borders have changed substantially since the fifteenth century — Italy, for example, became a nation only in 1861 — the exhibition’s geographic organization belied a complex history of these regions and their medals.
A selection of complementary works of art from the Frick’s holdings illustrated the intersections between the medal and other arts and honored the medal as a triumph of sculpture on a small scale.
The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals was organized by Aimee Ng, Associate Curator at the Frick, and Stephen K. Scher, collector and art historian. The exhibition was accompanied by a richly illustrated catalogue including an essay by Aimee Ng. (In 2018, a catalogue of the entire Scher Collection will be published, featuring essays by leading medals scholars and illustrated entries about each of the almost one thousand medals in the collection).
The exhibition was made possible by the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, with major support from an anonymous gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden and the Centennial Foundation in honor of Matthew McLennan. Additional funding was provided by Margot and Jerry Bogert, Frances Beatty and Allen R. Adler, the Christian Keesee Charitable Trust, and Charles Hack and Angella Hearn.
The exhibition catalogue was underwritten, in part, by a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.