by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950's
Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Most Americans who
grew up during the 1950's and 60's should remember how satisfying
it was to complete their first "paint by number" masterpiece.
Even without any formal artistic training, anyone could be an
Snow. Printed line art. Courtesy of PBN/NMAH.
The origin of this
fad is attributed to Max S. Klein, owner of the Palmer Paint Company
of Detroit, Michigan, and to artist Dan Robbins, who conceived
the idea and created many of the early paintings. Paint-by-number
kits first appeared in 1951 and by 1954, twelve million kits had
been sold. Despite Robbins' proposal that the first kit contain
an abstract painting, most consumers preferred realist subject
matters such as landscapes, seascapes, and animals and clowns.
So confident was Palmer's assurance to its customers' ability
to paint that each kit boldly declared, "Every man a Rembrandt!"
Annual Report for 1953. Courtesy of PBN/NMAH.
Derided by art critics
as kitsch, these painting kits were phenomenally popular with
many would-be artists. And even though they were extremely formulaic
and even downright tacky, the "artist" would nevertheless gain
insight and a deeper appreciation for the process of painting.
Lent by June Mersky. Courtesy of PBN/NMAH
This online exhibit
at the National Museum of American History examines this phenomenon
from the perspective of those who created the kits, the critics
who despised the hobby and of course, the scores of aspiring artists
who discovered the joys of this leisure activity.
Want to become a Rembrandt,
too? Check out the Le
Salon de Paint by Numbers
Learn more about paint
by numbers by ordering the exhibition catalog.
by William L. Bird Jr.
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