Betsy the chimp's brush with greatness Zoo: She was called the Paintin Primate, and her 'artwork' sold for $40 apiece. There were plenty of buyers.

Betsy, the Baltimore Zoo's famous finger-painting chimpanzee, known as the Paintin Primate, who created a sensation during the 1950s with her avant-garde simian artworks, began life in Liberia before being brought to Baltimore in 1953 by Arthur R. Watson, the zoo's legendary keeper.

The nameless chimp acquired her moniker after she was the subject of a Betholine-Sinclair oil company "Name the New Chimp" promotion. "It's official! Betsy is the new name our judges selected for the Baby Girl Chimp. Many thanks to the more than 10,000 Marylanders who entered and helped make our contest a success," said a double-page advertisement in The Sun in 1954.


"From now on -- just call me BETSY," read the caption under a picture of the chimp, dressed and wearing a bow in her hair, in the arms of a filling-station attendant.

It was Watson who, while observing Betsy's delicate actions as she dressed or ate her food, thought that perhaps she might be a candidate for art lessons.


The Baltimore Museum of Art had just paid $1,000 for an abstract painting by Willem de Kooning titled "Back Yard on Tenth Street," and Watson claimed that Betsy could do better, though one critic already had praised de Kooning's work for its "flamboyant lubricity."

The first thing Betsy did when she sat down for her initial art lesson was to eat some magenta and a bit of chrome-yellow paint. Then Watson gave her a brush, and after a few passes on the canvas, she began chewing the brush's handle.

But after she discovered that she could smear the paint all over the canvas with her fingers, the fun began in earnest.

"It was done in all seriousness, but people took it as a stunt," reported The Evening Sun in 1957.

"The results of her painting, although phenomenal, are actually accidental," reported The Sun Magazine in 1954.

"Mr. Watson points out that the 25-pound ape can't picture the finished paintings in advance, as a human artist might. Instead, she merely smears the wet paint with her fingers -- even her palms, elbows and feet."

Dr. Tom, her "boyfriend," a 4-year-old chimp from West Africa, became somewhat jealous of Betsy's rising fame and began painting furiously in blue and green.

Enjoying the fame game


Betsy could create a painting in 10 to 15 seconds, but by the time she was presented a third canvas, she would tire of the exercise. Still, her fame spread quickly.

"Almost every day, now that she's famous, Betsy leaves the zoo for press or personal appearances. She is easy to dress because she enjoys getting into clothes. She has four ensembles, and her favorite is the white cotton crepe smock in which she paints," reported The Sun.

In 1954, Colliers magazine, in a two-page spread, reproduced some of her paintings. In 1957, Betsy traveled to New York in style, sharing a drawing room on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Congressional with Watson, to make her nationwide network television debut on "The Garry Moore Show" and "The Tonight Show." Moore was raised in Baltimore.

"Wait until Garry Moore meets Betsy," Watson told The Sun. "They're just a couple of local kids who have made good."

Her paintings were selling at $40 apiece, and in one year the sale of her work brought $3,500 to the zoo's supplemental fund. She was making more money than many professional artists at the time.

Because her earnings were well over the single-worker tax deduction, the zoo had to get a dispensation from the Internal Revenue Service. Because she was donating her money to a nonprofit agency -- the zoo -- it was decided that she wasn't required to pay tax on her earnings.


But not everyone shared the opinion that Betsy was an artist.

"Betsy is fine in her place, but in my opinion that place isn't art," wrote Mrs. G. Barnes to the editor of The Sun. "I took the first smears as a joke, but the longer it goes on the less it seems like a joke. If Russia had a condescending attitude toward us and lacked the warmth of true friendship, what must they think of us now?"

The Russians denounced Betsy's work as "decadent bourgeois art."

Species disqualification

"I am quite overwhelmed by the emotions of admiration, astonishment and enthusiasm aroused, or excited by the marvelous paintings of Miss Betsy Chim," wrote John H. Stanford to The Sun in 1957. "This is the most indisputable advance in art since Pericles. It will, I am sure, drive Matisse, Picasso and other alleged artists and the Cone, May and other collections back to oblivion, from which they should never have emerged."

After it was suggested that Betsy's work be entered in a 1957 art show in Berkeley, Calif., she was disqualified on the basis that she was a chimp rather than a human.


"No chimpanzee is going to make a monkey out of me," said Charles Modecke, an abstractionist who protested Betsy's being in the show. "Arts and crafts, yes. Chimpanzees, no."

In studying her paintings, Salvador Dali told The Sun, "I would expect something more fluid. The method is no good. There is nothing wrong with accidents themselves. A human can create an accident that is almost animal. And an animal can create an accident that is almost human. But Rafael or Dali produce accidents that are almost divine."

The paintings were not a hoax, Watson recalled years later.

"The animal paintings were tops in public relations work," he said. "We were perfectly honest. We didn't say it was art. We said it was 'patterns and designs.' "

Betsy died Feb. 10, 1960, age 9, after another chimp fell on her and broke her leg. After going into shock, she was taken to Sinai Hospital, where doctors performed open-heart massage in a futile effort to save her life. An autopsy later revealed that she had cancer.

Pub Date: 8/17/97