Despite the fact that Bob Ross produced almost 30,000 paintings over the course of his lifetime, it is virtually impossible to track down, let alone purchase, any of his signature landscape scenes. Due to this surprising shortage, the few works on the market command a hefty premium, selling on eBay for thousands of dollars.
The New York Times wanted answers. In a delightful video investigation recently published by the publication, reporters found there's actually a relatively straightforward reason why it’s so difficult to find an original Ross painting—particularly one of the 1,143 he made as host of the popular PBS television show “The Joy of Painting.” That's because, as Larry Buchanan, Aaron Byrd, Alicia DeSantis and Emily Rhyne report, an estimated 1,165 of the famously upbeat painter’s canvases are hidden away in storage at Bob Ross Inc.’s northern Virginia headquarters. None of the works housed at the facility are up for sale, and the building is closed to outside visitors.
“[Selling Ross’ paintings] actually has never occurred to us,” Bob Ross Inc. President Joan Kowalski, daughter of Ross’ longtime painting and business partner Annette Kowalski, tells the Times. “I guess I wouldn’t even know how to answer that question, because we’ve never even really talked about it.”
The oil landscapes housed at the company’s Herndon, Virginia, headquarters may not be available for purchase, but Bob Ross Inc. did just donate an array of artwork and artifacts to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History earlier this year. The items include a 1994 painting titled “Blue Ridge Falls,” a 1988 canvas titled “On a Clear Day,” a converted stepladder used as an easel during “The Joy of Painting”’s first season, handwritten notebooks, and fan letters written to the popular TV personality before and after he died of lymphoma in 1995 at age 52.
“These letters help reveal the significant impact Ross has had on diverse individuals and communities, helping them to express and feel better about themselves,” says Eric Jentsch, the museum's entertainment and sports curator.
The American History Museum has no active plans to exhibit the new acquisitions, but as the video states, the artifacts—now part of the institution’s permanent collection—will eventually be featured alongside the work of American icons such as Julia Childs and Mr. Rogers.
The 1,143-figure cited in the Times investigation stems from a 2014 analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey. Assessing the “happy trees,” “almighty mountains” and “fluffy clouds” created over the course of “The Joy of Painting”’s 11-year run, Hickey concluded that Ross painted 381 works on the air. Because the artist made three versions of each of these canvases (one painted before the show was used as a reference, one painted during was the main attraction and one painted after was fine-tuned for instructional books), the total associated with the show, thus, rounds out to 1,143.
Ross rocketed to fame with the 1983 premiere of “The Joy of Painting,” a half-hour instructional show that found the artist producing landscape scenes on live television. Known for his easy-to-emulate style, instantly recognizable perm, and onscreen antics—over the course of the show’s run, he welcomed animal guests ranging from squirrels to robins, an owl and a baby raccoon—Ross was initially dismissed as “kitsch” by the mainstream art establishment. Today, however, he's widely considered an American icon. The public's embrace of his work exceeded even his own expectations.
Back in 1994, talk show host Phil Donahue asked Ross to “say out loud your work will never hang in a museum.”
“Well, maybe it will,” Ross replied, before adding, “But probably not [at] the Smithsonian.”