FILLING IN THE BLANKS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Tips might include lessons in "picture grouping," "focal spots," "mass and importance" and "proper size balance," according to "Paint by Number." At-home curators were warned of the dangers of inadequate lighting or hanging pictures "where the viewer is forced into an awkward position to see your work properly."

American institution

Last week, two 50-ish women stood in the museum, gazing at a paint-by-number image of da Vinci's famous work of art.

"Oh, look at that," one said. "That was in our dining room."

"That was in everyone's dining room," her friend answered.

Painting by number placed for the first time "the apparatus of fine art" into the hands of the many, Bird says. The affordable and easy-to-use kits democratized the process of painting, and in doing so, popularized high culture. Anyone with some free time, a few dollars for a Picture Craft Co. paint-by-number set and the patience to fill in the small, numbered spaces could think himself an artist.

The hobby also galvanized cultural critics nationwide to express their utter horror with the complaint: "It's not art!"

"I don't know what America is coming to 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," wrote one aghast reader of American Artist in 1953. "Can't you rescue some of these souls -- or should I say 'morons' -- before they are lost forever?"

To defenders of high culture, painting by number seemed to represent all that was wrong with society. In an era of prosperity, Americans had an unprecedented amount of free time, and, social critics thought, should be filling the empty hours with more productive and uplifting pursuits.

"The critics shared the assumption that people who did these kits were incapable of knowing what they were doing," Bird says. "But nothing could be further from the truth. How could you as a hobbyist not know it's a craft?"

Even now, long past its heyday in the 1950s, painting by number provokes sharply divided opinions.

When Bird, (who has a small collection of paint-by-number paintings, but who says he has never actually painted one), pitched his idea for an exhibition, his Smithsonian colleagues were skeptical. "It was difficult to explain the idea," he says. "It was difficult to present it to the exhibition committee. They barely considered it. I had to go before them and take questions like, 'What's the point?' "

But enthusiasm for -- or at least fascination with -- the craft never has faded away completely. There are Web sites for fans. Collectors vie for completed paint-by-number kits on the eBay online auction site. Though the museum hasn't tracked how many visitors have stopped in at "Paint by Number," its Web site is filled with reminiscences from visitors about hours spent happily and painstakingly filling in tiny blanks with paint.

Some enthusiasts write of treasuring paintings that a grandparent or parent completed decades ago. Some fondly recall many happy hours spent painting while home sick from school. Still others recount their feelings of personal achievement after having successfully completed a complicated painting kit.

Treasured memories

One Web site visitor remembers Friday nights spent with her sister:

We were partial to animals (puppies, kittens, horses, etc.) ... my sister and I would always start fighting ... she would use the "wrong" colors and go over the lines (artistic license) while I wanted it to look like a perfect replica of the picture on the box lid. We would have cheese and crackers while we did this ... Ritz crackers with cheese that was sprayed on them from an aerosol can.

Another entry reads, in part:

I am now sitting in my living room looking at a paint by numbers of Emmett Kelley that my Mother did back in the early '70s. About 2 years before Mother died, my Dad made a beautiful frame for this picture and gave it to me for a Christmas present. At the time, I was not really impressed, but now I see the beauty of what I have. A picture painted by my dear departed Mother and a frame made with my loving Dad's own hands. I would not take anything for this picture. I look at the picture and see Mother painting it and the memories are beautiful. We need more paint by numbers, in my opinion.

To Bird, these Web site entries -- and comments from museum visitors -- vindicate the painting-by-number enthusiasts.

"The reminiscences are the answer to the critics, even those who persist today," he says. "What we are talking about is a pleasurable hobby. If they can find pleasure with one of these kits, please tell me: What is so upsetting about that?"

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