Dan Robbins, 1925–2019
The artist who brought painting to the masses
Dan Robbins was working as a packaging designer for the Palmer Paint Co. in Detroit when the company’s owner approached him with a seemingly simple request: Figure out how to get people to buy more paint. Robbins came back to his boss with a diagram that resembled a colorless stained-glass window. Each blank segment on the canvas would contain a number corresponding to a pot of paint that would be included with a set—customers would then fill in the blanks. The creation became a national sensation, with the company selling 20 million “paint-by-number” kits in 1955. Robbins said his idea was inspired by one of the great masters. “I had heard that [Leonardo] da Vinci used to use diagrams and number them when he was instructing his students in painting,” he said in 1999. “And a light bulb went off in my head.”
Robbins was born in Detroit to a Russian Jewish immigrant father who worked as a car salesman and a homemaker mother, said The Washington Post. He “missed his high school graduation to join the Signal Corps, serving in Europe during World War II.” There, he honed his artistic abilities making maps for the Army. He went to work for Palmer Paint boss Max Klein after the war, designing children’s coloring books. Robbins’ paint-by-number prototype was a still life titled Abstract No. 1 that, he said, “stirred together some Picasso, some Braque, and some Robbins.” Klein, a former General Motors chemist, hated it. “Abstracts are for people who call themselves artists but can’t paint worth a damn,” he said.
Yet Klein “saw potential with the overall concept,” said the Associated Press. Robbins created paint-by-numbers landscapes, then branched out to pictures of horses, puppies, and kittens, before moving up to highbrow fare, including Leonardo’s The Last Supper. Art critics were horrified at the kits, sold under the slogan “Every Man a Rembrandt,” said The New York Times. But many Americans loved them. President Dwight D. Eisenhower displayed his paint-by-number creations in the White House, and Robbins made a paint-by-number self-portrait (pictured). The kits largely disappeared by the 1960s, but the paintings continued to circulate among collectors and were featured in a 2001 Smithsonian Institution exhibition. “I never claim that painting by number is art,” Robbins said. “But it is the experience of art.” ■