Every Man a Rembrandt
Propelled by postwar prosperity, increased leisure time, and the
democratic idea that anyone might paint a picture, paint by number
became a popular pastime in the early 1950s. Each paint-by-number
kit included two brushes and up to ninety premixed, numbered paints
ready to be applied to numbered spaces on an accompanying canvas
or board. As the spaces were filled in, the gradual revelation
of a picture surprised and delighted.
One grateful hobbyist likened the process to an addiction. "I
know I'm not much of an artist and never will be," he or she wrote
to American Artist. "I've tried in vain repeatedly to draw or
paint something recognizable. . . . Why oh why didn't you or someone
else tell me before this how much fun it is to use these wonderful
'paint by number' sets? . . . am on my fifth set and just can't
leave them alone."
For critics, the paint-by-number phenomenon provided ample evidence
of the mindless conformity gripping national life and culture.
"I don't know what America is coming to," one writer complained
to American Artist, "when thousands of people, many of them adults,
are willing to be regimented into brushing paint on a jig-saw
miscellany of dictated shapes and all by rote. Can't you rescue
some of these souls-or should I say 'morons'?"
The making of the 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 initial
paintings. Palmer Paint began distributing paint-by-number kits
under the Craft Master label in 1951. By 1954, Palmer had sold
some twelve million kits. Popular subjects ranged from landscapes,
seascapes, and pets to Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. Paint-kit
box tops proclaimed, "Every man a Rembrandt!"
Dan Robbins proposed that Palmer's first paint-by-number kit be an
abstract painting rendered in the cubist style pioneered by Pablo
Picasso and Georges Braque. It later proved that adult consumers
attracted to the by-the-numbers concept disdained abstract compositions,
preferring the narrative realism of Fishermen, Mt. Matterhorn,
Latin Figures, and The Bullfighter.
Sales of paint-by-number kits took off on the West Coast in 1951.
In this San Francisco scene, one clerk replenishes sales stock,
while another demonstrates the by-the-numbers technique for a
crowd of curious onlookers.
Branching out to markets in Canada, England, France, Germany,
Italy, and Norway in the early 1950s, Palmer Paint tailored paint-by-number
subjects to national tastes. This pamphlet merchandising Craft
Master kits in England, for example, features Shakespeare's birthplace
and Ann Hathaway's cottage. Parisian subjects popular in the American
market sold well to French-speaking consumers, and are pictured
in this pamphlet that emphasizes paint by number's "valeur Úducative"