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"EVERY MAN A REMBRANDT"
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THE UNFINISHED WORK OF PAINT BY NUMBER, 1960-2001
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Demonstration Photomural demonstration.PBN/NMAH


Every Man a Rembrandt

Winter Snow 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.

"Dinner is all ready" 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'?"

Max S. Klein 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 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 Scene 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.

English Consumer Brochure 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" (educational value).

NMAH
Introduction | Every Man A Rembrandt | The New Leisure | The Picture's Place
The Unfinished Work | Post-a-Reminiscence | Bibliography, Links & Credits