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Rec-Room Rembrandts

Smithsonian Revisits the Artistry and Kitsch of Paint-by-Number

But Is It Art?: The products of the 1950s paint-by-number craze are now eBay-ready collectibles and Smithsonian-ready cultural fodder.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 4/18/2001

Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s

National Museum of American History through Dec. 31.

Individuality is fine--as long as we all do it together," said Frank Burns, the neurotic, middlebrow character on TV's M*A*S*H. Burns wasn't talking about paint-by-numbers, the hobby fad born during the age of the Korean War, but he might as well have been. Paint-by-number--like the era that spawned it--is all about conformity. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater metaphor for America's Leave It to Beaver, I Like Ike, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit 1950s than this "digital art" craze that roared through the decade, promising neophyte brush-wielders "a beautiful oil painting the first time you try!"

Paint-by-number kits, for those unfamiliar with the pastime, provide canvases bearing picture outlines and numbers keyed to vials of paint. (Paint all the areas marked "1" red, all the areas marked "2" green, and so on.) Painting, ostensibly one of the most creative and individualistic endeavors, is rendered rote--a matter of manual dexterity, not inspiration.

A vulgar, vapid assault on the nature of creativity and art? A harmless hobby offering vicarious participation in the painting process? Debate lines were quickly drawn: The mainline art world verbally assaulted the concept while Middle America physically assaulted the store shelves to snatch up the kits. Twelve million kits were sold in 1952 and 1953. A nation of Rembrandt wannabes holed up in their tract-house basements--all of them bent over slabs of numbered cardboard, all brushing to life the exact same clown or kitten or wistful image of the old mill. Follow the rules and stay within the lines and you'd be rewarded with an oil painting ready for a Levittown living room.

Though paint-by-number's popularity extended into the 1960s--and a few new kits are made today--the fad peaked in 1955. (Americans soon started Hula-Hooping instead.) Most of the finished paintings wound up in attics, flea markets, and thrift stores. But this bygone bit of boomer kitsch--like so many other bygone bits of boomer kitsch--has recently hit the collectibles market. Dozens of vintage paint-by-number paintings are sold daily on the Internet auction site eBay, sometimes for upwards of $150 each. However, the best evidence that the hoary hobby has achieved a renewed cultural prominence is strapped to the facade of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History: a 29-foot-by-18-foot re-creation of a paint-by-number canvas. Indeed, on April 5 museum director Spencer Crew was up in a cherry picker dabbing red paint on a numbered section of the banner. It was the Smithsonian's high-profile way of announcing the opening of the exhibit Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s and the release of the companion book Paint by Number: The How-to Craze That Swept a Nation, by the show's curator, William Lawrence Bird Jr. (Princeton Architectural Press, $18.95).

Despite the dramatic rollout, the exhibit itself is rather small, some 30 paintings and related artifacts housed in an L-shaped gallery in the one of the labyrinthine museum's upper floors. (Many of the paintings are on loan from prominent collectors of the genre, folks who began rescuing the dusty works from cellars and Salvation Army stores about 10 years ago--mainly because they could be had for a song.) Paint-by-number paintings have an instantly recognizable look, largely because color blending and shading were not part of the creation scheme. Though some of the more elaborate kits featured 90 different hues, it wasn't enough to overcome the limits of the process. A large street scene in the exhibit called "April in Paris" is one such ambitious painting, but its inherent blocky look doesn't come off as impressionistic, just busy.

A guest of honor at the exhibit opening is Dan Robbins, an amiable, silver-haired 76-year-old in a tan suit. He's often referred to as the "inventor of paint-by-number," an accolade he shrugs off, saying he was just "the right person at the right time." (His business card simply reads paint-by-numbers guru.) Paint-by-number kits geared to children date to the 1920s, decades before Robbins, a young artist working for a small Detroit-based specialty paint company called Palmer Paints, got into the act in 1951. Robbins was looking for a new way to help the company sell paint, and recalled from his art training at a vocational high school that Leonardo da Vinci had employed a paint-numbering scheme to allow underlings to fill in backgrounds and perform other minor tasks. (It's fitting that 15th-century Italian master is perhaps the real father of paint-by-numbers, as his "Last Supper" became the most popular paint-by-number subject.) Robbins' first paint-by-number design was a Picasso-esque abstract, called, straightforwardly enough, "Abstract No. 1." His boss hated the picture ("too arty") but loved the numbering concept, which they set out to market to adults.

Four years ago Robbins penned a droll history of the hobby, Whatever Happened to Paint-by-Numbers? (Possum Hill Press, $16.95), capturing the fad's seat-of-the-pants origins. The first paint vials were actually gelatin capsules, which were filled with paint via a modified grease gun. Despite an early packing error that sent hundreds of kits to stores with incorrectly numbered paints--picture a bullfight scene in which a green bull chases a blue cape--the concept quickly clicked with consumers.

"We ultimately had four factories, seven warehouses, and 1,800 employees--and we still couldn't keep up with the demand," Robbins recalls. "We had store buyers sending us cases of whiskey, asking us to please ship our order!"

Oddly, no one ever managed to patent the concept, so while Palmer Paint's "Craft Master" brand of paint-by-number kits remained the industry leader, more than 20 other firms were soon churning out numbered canvases of their own. Inevitably, the market was saturated and the boom went bust.

The Smithsonian exhibit focuses largely on the fad's glory days. A photo of a '50s hobby show shows a woman dutifully dabbing away at a paint-by-number image behind signage stating the lady painting this picture is not a painter. Other virtues of the wonderful pastime are touted in the image as well, including one attribute of the paintings that surely spoke to the heart of the average housewife: "They can be washed with soap and water." (Try that with a da Vinci fresco.)

Curiously absent from the exhibit are any nudes, the classic artistic subject. Paint-by-number nudes were made and are among the most collectible pictures today. But after all, this was the '50s. Robbins smiles as he recalls how Craft Master product catalogs prudishly wouldn't print images of a finished paint-by-number nude. In the days before focus groups and deep-pocketed marketing departments, the company largely relied on consumer's letters and phone calls to determine which images to offer. Requests flooded in for ballerinas, kittens, flowers, Old Master reproductions, horses, and idealized landscapes--subjects Robbins calls "safe." After determining that nearly 70 percent of paint-by-number buyers were middle-class women, his firm created a mythical, midcentury everywoman called Mrs. Murphy to serve as a prototypical customer. Advertising usually featured the Mrs. Murphy character, a grinning Donna Reed-like figure clutching a finished canvas and rabidly exclaiming "I painted it myself!"

The Smithsonian exhibit presents a few curiosities, such as an Alpine scene painted by none other than über-conformist J. Edgar Hoover. Not surprisingly, it's meticulously rendered. Across the gallery from Hoover's decidedly by-the-numbers effort, is a much more organic image of a snow-covered country house called "Winter Shadows." The painting, signed susan ellis, hangs next to a "properly" painted version of the same work, allowing you to see how Ellis broke the rules-- blurring lines, changing colors, and taking other liberties (such as eliminating a car parked before the house). As a result, Ellis' is the much more human and appealing painting. Exhibit text seems to champion her approach, stating that the "real art began the moment the hobbyist ignored a detail or elaborated a theme."

While many paint-by-number practitioners probably brought some impromptu, rule-busting "real art" to their efforts, it wasn't enough to silence the naysayers. Art educators were the most vociferous foes of what they called "the numbers racket." The exhibit and, especially, Bird's book touch upon this clash. In 1954, School Arts magazine called paint-by-number "stifling and inhibiting." One art teacher went so far as to suggest "there ought to be a law" against the kits.

Robbins weathered the stinging criticism he says branded paint-by-numbers enthusiasts "morons" and the process "a creative dead end." He says the kits put brushes in the hands of millions of people who might never have considered painting. Many, he asserts, gained artistic confidence through the process and ultimately took up blank canvases. Bird concludes in his book that paint-by number "democratized, rather than diluted, the cultural value of art and artistic expression."

But the war of words over the 50-year-old hobby is moot now, seeing how the works are now largely viewed as campy collectibles. Robbins, who ultimately enjoyed a long and varied career in the toy-and-hobby industry, laments--though without bitterness--that he never got rich off the fad he helped create. "I was always only an employee," he says. But then there is a 500-square-foot paint-by-number of his own design strung up in front of the nation's most prestigious cultural repository. Reward in itself.

"Never in a million years," the grinning paint-by-number guru says, "did I ever think I'd end up in the Smithsonian."

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