You, Too, Can Be a Rembrandt

The 1950s paint-by-number craze turned everyone into an instant artist. Critics were contemptuous, but even the President’s men were doing it

"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 concerned correspondent to American Artist in 1953. "Can’t you rescue some of these souls—or should I say ‘morons’?—before they are lost forever?"

Perhaps paint-by-number fans will soon be avenged. A new exhibition, "Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s," opens April 6 at the National Museum of American History and revisits the popular hobby from the vantage point of its critics, the artists and entrepreneurs who created the paint kits, and the hobbyists who willingly filled them in and hung them in their homes. Despite their detractors, by 1954 more "number paintings" were hanging in American homes than original works of art. It seemed as if the whole country was doing it. Even several members of the Eisenhower Administration had done kits. Apparently Thomas E. Stephens, the President’s appointment secretary, managed to convince them that Eisenhower, an avid amateur painter, required it. The payoff: a West Wing gallery of paint-by-number subjects completed by officials such as J. Edgar Hoover and Nelson Rockefeller.

 As hobbyists who negotiated the undulating blue outline of the numbered canvas knew, it wasn’t art. But as millions of Americans picked up paint brushes for the first time, more than a few took liberties. They ventured off into, as one retailer put it, "paint WITHOUT numbers." The show suggests that the moment hobbyists ignored the prescribed outlines to blend adjacent colors, added or dropped details, elaborated upon themes, and extended the composition onto the frame, it was art. Morons, indeed.

By William L. Bird, Jr.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.