A Retrospective on Bob Ross’ Status in the Art World
by Tara Allen Flanagan
When thinking of famous painters, Bob Ross may not immediately come to mind. He wasn’t born hundreds of years ago, his career isn’t steeped controversy, and his works are not the type to be the subject of hundreds of thousands of academic theses. Instead, Bob Ross’ career is one of kindness and genuine sentiment. He gained fame through his television show The Joy of Painting, attracting millions of dedicated viewers who continue to support him posthumously. Bob Ross is arguably one of the most famous painters of the contemporary era, yet among academic circles his work isn’t considered at all. This isn’t a conspiracy, however, as popular artists who made work for instructional or decorative purposes are often ignored in the study of art history in favour of innovators and outliers.
Bob Ross isn’t famous for his revolutionary subject matter and style; he is famous for his kind demeanor, interest in teaching the art of painting, and his happiness based composition style. Even if you are not familiar with his works, you may be familiar with Ross’ optimistic outlook on the artistic process: “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”
After leaving his position as a Master Sergeant in the US army, Ross turning to painting when he realized how lucrative the career could be. He was inspired by the television show The Magic of Oil Painting, and upon creating his own instructional painting television show Ross managed to create a painting empire. Before you judge him for being a business minded artist, it might be useful to consider that, historically, most artists worked to make money. Artists were commissioned to make works by patrons, and submitted their works to exhibitions to increase their fame.
Bob Ross took advantage of a market that had an interest in painting and did something that many people dream of: he made a fortune from painting. He did not, however, make money from selling his works. The PBS is a public channel, he made no money from his shows being aired. He donated he paintings to PBS stations to use as auction items during fundraisers. He earned his fortune by selling books and putting his name on painting classes taught by artists instructed in his methods. Bob Ross became a famous painter whose work cannot be bought for millions, effectively ignoring the growing art market that leads paintings by famous artists to be sold for over 450 million USD at auction.
For a major celebrity who worked during the beginning of the digital age Bob Ross remained relatively under the radar as a public figure. He answered fan letters, called people who hadn’t written in a while to check up on them, and did any interview that was asked of him. During the last years of his life, he spent his time saving and rehabilitating baby squirrels. His entire ethos around painting was happiness and kindness: after leaving the army, he vowed to never raise his voice at anyone ever again. His paintings of mountains, landscapes, and big trees are a fond relic of the 90s and the first foray into painting that many people took. His wet on wet oil technique was not revolutionary, nor were his landscapes. What was revolutionary, however, was his ideology. Bob Ross was a revolutionary in the sense that he democratized painting and acted with a kindness that is uncommon in the competitive art market. He may not live on in the research of future academics, but his presence in the public consciousness as a great artist is well deserved.
I’ll sign off from this article with a quote from a 1990 interview Ross had with the Orlando Sentinel. Hopefully his words can inspire readers to be a little kinder on themselves when it comes to trying to achieve new heights. Sometimes it’s important to take things slow, be kind to ourselves, and relish in our happy little accidents: ”Traditionally, art has been for the select few. We have been brainwashed to believe that Michaelangelo had to pat you on the head at birth. Well, we show people that anybody can paint a picture that they’re proud of. It may never hang in the Smithsonian, but it will certainly be something that they’ll hang in their home and be proud of. And that’s what it’s all about.”