Step into any pine–paneled den in mid-50s America and you were likely to see a piece of paint-by-number artwork. After more than a half a century, those New England lighthouses and pictures of Chinese maidens and matadors are seen as more than just retro décor. Join curator William L. Bird, Jr. for an entertaining stroll though a virtual gallery of Craft Master classics to explore how a kitschy hobby craze colorfully planted itself at the intersection of elite and popular cultures, savvy marketing, and postwar middle-class cultural aspirations.
Bird acknowledges that the hugely popular paint-by-number creations were never really art, but “by doing what art was not supposed to be, one could learn what it was.” Decried by cultural critics and art educators, painting by the numbers—and its crafty cousins like Mosette (a crushed-marble mosaic medium) and Tole Ware (metal painting kits)—nevertheless filled the leisure hours of countless Americans who felt that it indeed delivered on the promise to make “every man a Rembrandt.” Today, those rec-room still lifes and cocker-spaniel portraits are highly collectible, and are taken seriously by art and cultural historians for what they tell us about Eisenhower-era America.
Begin the evening by sipping a glass of wine and trying your hand at a paint-by-number masterpiece (beret and smock not included).
Bird is a curator at the American History Museum. He assembled that museum’s exhibition Paint by Number: Accounting for Taste in 1950s America, and wrote the companion book Paint by Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation (Princeton Architectural Press).
Take a look at the Smithsonian’s Accounting for Taste exhibition online.