Cover image for Paint by number
Paint by number
Bird, William L.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History ; New York City, NY : in association with Princeton Architectural Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
vii, 135 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 23 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ND1471.5 .B57 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



What is the fascination of paint by numbers? Is it the intoxicating and compulsive act of filling in small pools of color? Or the easy thrill of creating your own impressionist masterpiece? Or a fond nostalgic yearning for a craze that cut across national boundaries and age groups? Invented in 1951 by Dan Robbins-based on an idea used by Leonardo da Vinci to teach painting-the paint-by-number craze reached its zenith in the 1950s but continues even today aspaints and kits are avidly collected, exhibited in galleries, and traded on eBay. In Paint By Number, author Larry Bird takes us on an unbelievable journey where art meets kitsch and popular and high cultures collide in a collage of home economics, leisure time fun, and art education, Bird revisits the hobby from the vantage point of the artists and entrepreneurs who created the popular paint kits, the critics who reviled them, and the consumers who enthusiastically filled them in and hung themin their homes. Paint By Number includes over 200 examples of paint-by-number ephemera and two pull-out paintings ready to be filled-in!

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the early 1950s, paint-by-number kits became, for watchdogs of America's artistic ambition, a metaphor for the commercialization, mechanization and "dumbing-down" of American culture. But consumers paid little attention to such finger wagging; in 1954, more "number" paintings hung in American homes than did original works of art. Using 185 color and 15 b&w exemplars, William Bird (Better Living: Advertising, Media and the New Vocabulary of Business Leadership) analyzes the phenomenon in Paint by Number: The How-To Craze that Swept the Nation, which accompanies an exhibition he curated for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (now hanging until December). Based on a Leonardo da Vinci technique for teaching painting, paint by number survives to this day, now collected, traded online and exhibited in galleries. ( May 8) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Invented in 1949 and reaching its zenith in the mid-Fifties, when millions of craft kits marketed with the slogan "Every man a Rembrandt" were sold for around $2.50 each, the paint-by-number fad spread throughout Eisenhower's burgeoning America, where garish scenes of covered bridges, dogs, ships, and cowboys hung over the sofas of new tract homes. This entertaining book accompanies an exhibition of 200 examples at the National Museum of American History on view through the end of 2001. Bird, a Smithsonian curator and author (Better Living, etc.), traces the history of the hobby and its mass appeal to middlebrow aspirations to culture, as well as the art world's derisively dismissive reactions. He also recounts fascinating examples of the fad's place in American culture, including the Stephens Collection of paint-by-number canvases completed by J. Edgar Hoover, Nelson Rockefeller, and other administration officials and displayed in the West Wing of the White House. As a bonus, two blank paintings with color instructions are reproduced inside the foldout covers. Recommended for American cultural history sections in libraries at all levels. Russell T. Clement, Northwestern Univ. Lib., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Painting by number remains as controversial today as in the 1950s when its popularity occasioned staunch protest from the professional art world. Bird (National Museum of American History) brings fascinating insights to why the phenomenon of number painting so completely captured the interest of people in post-WW II America even to the extent that the US president and his staff actually engaged in such leisure-time activity so enthusiastically that they proudly exhibited the productions in the White House. This exhibition catalog will appeal to Americans who lived through the era and remember--happily or otherwise--the extensive criticism the art profession voiced when these ready-made bits, with their minutely numbered spaces and matching numbered colors, promised consumers instant success in painting pictures. Bird's succinct review of the history of number paintings and the role of business entrepreneurs who capitalized on their popularity suggests a startling similarity to today's pursuits toward deeper spiritual awareness sought in our own culture, imbued with television's standardized imageries and mesmerizing fascinations with computer and electronic audiovisual phenomena since the 1950s. The quest for "quick-fix" escapes of success--assured by instant effectiveness--is yet another facet of the frenzied search for aesthetic leisure and cultural refinement evoked by 1950s peace and prosperity. General readers; undergraduates; faculty. J. L. Leahy emerita, Marygrove College

Table of Contents

Forewordp. vii
Introductionp. 1
Chapter 1 Every man a rembrandtp. 21
Chapter 2 The new leisurep. 55
Chapter 3 The picture's placep. 87
Epilogue: the unfinished workp. 101
Notesp. 119
Select bibliographyp. 123
Image creditsp. 129
Acknowledgmentsp. 133