Dan Robbins, paint-by-number inventor who made ‘every man a Rembrandt,’ dies at 93

Paint-by-number kits, such as this winter landscape, became a sensation in the 1950s. (iStock)

April 5 at 8:19 PM

Dan Robbins, who tried to make “every man a Rembrandt” with his invention of paint-by-number kits in the 1950s, a phenomenon that delighted hobbyists and rankled critics by inviting amateurs to dip their toe — and a paintbrush — into the realm of art, died April 1 in Sylvania, Ohio. He was 93.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said a son, Larry Robbins.

Mr. Robbins, whose creations adorned millions of American homes in their heyday, was a self-described “right guy at the right time in the right place.” The time was the prosperous lull after World War II, when Americans had newfound time for recreation. The place was Detroit, birthplace of the assembly line, where Mr. Robbins, then in his 20s, worked for Palmer Paint Co. He had recently mustered out of the Army Signal Corps and was retraining his artistic abilities from mapmaking to designing children’s coloring books.

He presented to the company’s owner, Max Klein, a proposal for a new product for adults. It was not a coloring book, but rather a coloring canvas predrawn with a design resembling a colorless stained-glass window. Each blank segment would contain a number corresponding to a capsule of paint included with the set, thus the name “paint by number.”

His prototype, a still-life that emerged when he “stirred together some Picasso, some Braque and some Robbins,” he told the Associated Press, was titled “Abstract No. 1.” Klein swiftly rejected it, decreeing, with more than a dab of irony, that “abstracts are for people who call themselves artists but can’t paint worth a damn.” But Klein saw potential in the idea and asked Mr. Robbins to explore more easily digestible subject matter.

Mr. Robbins, and later other artists he hired, came through with landscapes and seascapes, florals and celebrity portraits sold under the Craft Master brand. Horses would be a runaway hit, as were kittens with balls of yarns, and clowns. Sales were slow at first but took off after paint-by-number kits appeared at a toy show in New York in 1951. For roughly $2.50 a set, every man, as the slogan went, could be a Rembrandt. By the early 1950s, paint-by-number kits reached $80 million a year in sales.

Dan Robbins, the creator of paint-by-number kits, died April 1 at 93. (Family photo)

For cosmopolitan consumers, there was a Parisian scene featuring the Notre Dame cathedral. For those whose tastes ran to the bucolic, there was a New England barn. Religious painters-by-number could choose among renderings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and biblical scenes. For the artsy, there were even a few nudes. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover painted a Swiss village; President Dwight D. Eisenhower, too, joined the craze and displayed paint-by-number masterworks in the White House.

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