Paint-by-numbers art innovator, WWII veteran Dan Robbins dies
By MARK ZABORNEY | The Blade, Toledo, Ohio | Published: April 5, 2019
TOLEDO, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Dan Robbins, an artist whose idea for paint-by-number sets sparked a hobby craze and, decades later, inspired an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, died Monday in ProMedica Ebeid Hospice, Sylvania. He was 93.
He developed complications of pneumonia, his son, Larry Robbins, said.
Mr. Robbins and his wife, Estelle, lived the last four years at Oakleaf Village in Sylvania Township after a decade in West Bloomfield, Mich. A Detroit native, he formerly lived in the Chicago area and West Toledo.
His grounding in art theory, history, and technique at Detroit’s esteemed Cass Technical High School led to wartime duty in the Army Corps of Engineer’s maps division. He landed at Normandy four days after D-Day in June, 1944.
Back in civilian life, he was hired by the Palmer Paint Co., of Detroit, a maker of washable poster paints for children. Mr. Robbins told the story of what happened next during appearances at 20 North Gallery in downtown Toledo, most recently in March, 2018, and in his book, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?
Mr. Robbins had been designing packaging for children’s paint sets. His boss, Max Klein, asked him to design something akin to coloring books, except paint sets for adults. Mr. Robbins in 2008 told The Blade that he answered, “ ‘No, I can’t. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’”
Then he recalled an art history lesson from Cass Tech, that Leonardo da Vinci had given apprentices outlined and numbered canvases to paint. He presented Mr. Klein with a sample, which came to be called Abstract No. 1.
The boss didn’t like the modernist creation, but embraced the concept.
“I did the first 30 or 35 subjects myself, then I started farming them out to other artists,” Mr. Robbins once said. His specialty was barns, landscapes, and seascapes. Artists he hired as designers included Adam Grant, a Polish emigre, and Mr. Grant’s future wife, Peggy, both later best known as fine artists. Mr. Grant’s rendition of Da Vinci’s Last Supper was a perennial best-seller.
Sales of paint-by-number sets were slow at the 1951 introduction, but soared, peaking at 20 million in 1955. In that post-World War II era, many who never owned a home found themselves in their own dwelling, said William L. Bird, Jr., curator of the 2001 exhibition at the National Museum of American History.
“That’s a lot wall space,” said Mr. Bird, also author of the exhibit catalog, Paint by Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation.
Paint-by-number paintings, completed by those homeowners, “occupies attention, as a primary visual experience in the home” — at least until television firmly took hold, Mr. Bird said Thursday. “When you see them today, if you run across them at a yard sale or thrift store, they’re often so wonderfully framed, which attests to their importance in the life of the owner.”
Some critics sneered. Mr. Robbins, in his book, wrote, “I never claim that painting by number is art. But it is the experience of art, and it brings that experience to the individual who would normally not pick up a brush, not dip it in paint. That’s what it does.”
Pete Kadens, a grandson-in-law, said: “He basically democratized art.”
Palmer Paint in the late 1950s sold the division that made paint by number to the Donofrio family of Toledo, and the firm was named Craft Master Corp. Mr. Robbins left in 1971, several years after Craft Master was sold to General Mills. He and his wife moved to the Chicago area, where he had product design positions and was a consultant.
He was self effacing — and realized his accomplishment, said Condessa Croninger, art director of 20 North Gallery, a position Mrs. Grant earlier held. “Seeing people come up to him, shaking his hand and crying, tell him, ‘Oh, Mr. Robbins, I used to paint these with my mom or my dad,’ Dan was just beaming and so appreciative people were saying this. But he realized, he knew how it changed the world. It was never in his personality to go around telling people that.”
Surviving are his wife, the former Estelle Shapiro, whom he married Feb. 10, 1946; sons, Michael and Larry Robbins; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Services were held at the Dorfman Chapel in Farmington Hills, Mich.
The family suggests tributes to Jewish Family Service of Toledo in Sylvania Township.
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