Thursday, April 9, 2015

What To Collect: Paint By Number Paintings!!!


Vintage Paint By Number paintings are an ironic - and iconic - Mid-century modern art form.  They are really “low brow” - anyone can do one… But, they also fascinate us - there is something “elemental” about their beauty and “democratic” about the fact they even exist.  Simple, graphic, and rendered by a normal person, like us!, back in the day when mass prosperity was emerging across America.  They were… lovingly crafted… and as a result, they are easy to love, 50 years later.  Over the past several years, I’ve seen vintage PBNs become more and more collectible.  And on occasion, we see folks get epic with the art form and create their own Paint By Number murals, which are pretty darn groovy.  For this story, I found several great resources detailing the history of Paint By Number paintings - including important social history… and we’ll talk about how best to display paint by number art.  Actually, display tip #1 and as an avid collector has done with a collection of DOG PBNs (above) - group your PBNs for maximum impact.


The History Of Paint By Number Kits:
Paint By Number kits were so common, so popular, such a part of the American decorating scheme, that the Smithsonian created a whole exhibit around them in 2001.  Their accompanying educational website, still online today, is an awesome resource for Paint By Number history.  Their introduction gets right to the point and says that, while Americans loved their PBNs, critics had a snit fit:

Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in the 1950s revisits the hobby from the vantage point of the artists and entrepreneurs who created the popular paint kits, the cultural critics who reviled them, and the hobbyists who happily completed them and hung them in their homes.  Although many critics saw “number painting” as a symbol of the mindless conformity gripping 1950s America, paint by number had a peculiarly American virtue.  It invited people who had never before held a paintbrush to enter a world of art and creativity.


The Smithsonian explains who invented the kits - go, Detroit! - and how quickly the phenomenon took hold:

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!”

Interestingly - and not surprising to me, at all - the Smithsonian says that Dan Robbins wanted the first kits to be exploration of modern art, cubism and the like.  No way, said America!  Folks wanted cozy landscapes and such.  Yes: Colonial and Early American, not those hi-falutin modernist things.

The Smithsonian exhibit also explored the growth of leisure and how that helped fuel pursuits like PBN painting.  Paint By Number gets “deep” when considered in the context of the continuing growth of democracy and meritocracy in America.  I love this aspect of American culture.  Love love love it.  The Smithsonian says:

Writing in Life magazine in the late 1950s, cultural critic Russell Lynes set out to describe the popular pastimes of the “new leisure.”  He observed that the usual markers of class-education, wealth, and breeding-no longer applied.  The one thing that mattered was something that everyone had.  That something, Lynes explained, was free time.  In postwar America, class had become a matter of how one spent his or her free time.
 

Over the decades, the Smithsonian curators say, the Paint By Number aesthetic became so ingrained in our culture that other artists began to use it as a political launching point for their work.  Kind of Andy Warhol-esque stuff.  By around the year 2000, vintage PBNs started become collectible.  Today in 2015, I’d say they are super collectible - although prices are still “affordable”, especially if you find these at estate sales where I live, because everyone did PBNs!...REMEMBER, there are 12 million Craft Master PBNs out there!


Following the death of Max Klein in 1993, his daughter, Jacquelyn Schiffman, donated the Palmer Paint Co. archives to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.  The Palmer Paint Co. is still in business, and in 2011, they introduced two, 60th anniversary prints, which are still available for sale today. You can buy them here.

Read the entire Smithsonian history here. It’s a quick read, very entertaining, and lots of photos you can click on and see bigger.

Article Excerpt From: Retro Renovation

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