Filling In The Blanks

What made a conformist America passionate to paint by number?

May 20, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

Apparently not much is known about Susan Ellis. But we have to wonder. Was she a genius of some sort? A gutsy contrarian? A cultural Joan of Arc?

Was she myopic?

Even after the spotlight of curatorial scholarship is shined upon Ellis, all we really know is this: She owned a Craftint King Size Deluxe, No. KS-1 Paint by Number set titled "Winter Shadows." She completed the paint-by-number painting, which depicted a country road cast with the golden light of a sunset and rendered moody by the blues and purples of snowy hillocks. She signed her name in small, angular letters at the bottom right. And while doing so, she deviated from the kit's blueprint by leaving out a car (it should be parked on the snow-covered road) and by coloring outside the lines!

We love her for that, whoever, wherever, she is.

Ellis' work is on display through Dec. 31 in an exhibit called, "Paint By Number: Accounting for Tastes in the 1950s" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. In it, her wintry landscape stands nearly alone in its disregard for the rules. To be sure, two other works, unsigned, but equally rebellious, hang nearby. These depict seascapes, and the painter not only has filled in all the empty spaces, but continued his painting past the lines, out onto the frames.

But plenty of conformist works -- about 40, drawn from private collections -- are on display. One, a sweet mountain scene titled "Swiss Village," was dutifully completed (and signed) by J. Edgar Hoover. A second, meticulously rendered work, a Southwestern scene called "Old Mission," is signed with a flourish by Nelson A. Rockefeller.

There are unsigned paintings of spaniels, Parisian streetscapes, sailboats, floral arrangements, country roads and Oriental beauties.

The exhibit, curated by social historian Larry Bird, makes no claims that it is an art show. Instead, it documents the wild popularity during the 1950s of paint-by-number kits -- and explores how they became a touchstone for anxieties about the rapid changes in a mass-market society.

"To many people, the art world was culture's last refuge," says Bird, curator of the museum's division of social history. "In a land of jerry-built housing and cookie-cutter products, the fact that it was possible to package and sell art as an 'artistic experience,' and its popularity, made critics think it spelled the triumph of mass marketing and the end of creativity. I think they misread it."

Triumph of salesmanship

"Every man a Rembrandt!" promised the Palmer Show Card Paint Company, one of the largest manufacturers of paint-by-number kits. By 1954, just five years after the how-to kits were first marketed to adults, critics warned that Americans owned more paint-by-number paintings than they owned original artworks. Maybe so: One year earlier, Americans spent $80 million on the kits, which sold for an average of $2.50 and came two paintings to a box, according to "Paint by Number," (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001) the book written by Bird to accompany the show.

The story of the rise to popularity of painting by number has an American ring. In 1949, commercial artist Dan Robbins recalled having learned in art class years earlier that Leonardo da Vinci had divided his larger works into numbered sections, then parceled them out to painting assistants for completion. Robbins wondered: Could the da Vinci method somehow be packaged and marketed to unskilled adults?

Then employed by Palmer Paint of Detroit, Robbins designed "Abstract No. One," a fractured, paint-by-number still life with grapes and pitcher, and showed it to company owner Max Klein.

Klein, a former General Motors employee, hated the abstract painting. But he loved the concept, and threw himself behind it with a flair for the dramatic and a marketing know-how learned in the auto industry. In 1951, he and Robbins drove from Detroit to the New York Toy Fair in a Chrysler New Yorker stuffed with paint-by-number sets. At a product demonstration at Macy's, Klein packed the department store with friends armed with money who caused a run on paint-by-number kits.

In seemingly no time, there were as many as 30 companies churning out number painting kits, though three -- Palmer of Detroit, Picture Craft Co. of Decatur, Ill., and Master Artists Materials Inc. of Brooklyn -- dominated the market.

An industrious hobbyist could buy a "paint-a-player" kit and produce a portrait of Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Lemon or Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Duke Snider. He could stick with easier subjects like seascapes or kittens. Or, he could work his way up to the masterpiece series, which included the paint-by-number best seller: a rendition of da Vinci's "Last Supper." Soon, magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and Good Housekeeping were publishing articles filled with advice on how to hang the finished works.

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