He boasted a television career lasting 11 years, whereby he became one of America’s most beloved painters. Not only did he showcase his sheer talent to the world, but his quirky, familiar disposition also put people at ease. There’s no doubting the impact Bob Ross had on pop culture. But up until recently, nothing was known about what happened to his paintings. Read on to uncover the mystery of where Bob Ross’ paintings went following his death.
Beloved artist Bob Ross first became famous after starring in his half-hour long live television show, The Joy of Painting on PBS. Showing him painting landscape images, the program first aired in 1983 and continued running for more than a decade. While viewers were impressed by his quick brushwork, Ross won over a loyal fan base thanks to more than just his skills.
Fans fell in love with his relaxed demeanor, unmistakable head of hair, and the quirky catch phrases he coined, like “happy little trees” and “we don’t make mistakes, we make happy accidents.” But while these characteristics seemed unique to Ross, he had a predecessor who would later reveal the truth behind Ross’ paintings — and the betrayal that he felt at Ross’ hands.
Bob Ross’ mentor was a man named William “Bill” Alexander, a Prussian immigrant who moved overseas to Canada after World War II, during which he had been drafted to the German military. While Alexander relocated in hopes of finding more opportunity, he unfortunately struggled hard to make ends meet as a painter.
That was, until Alexander moved to the United States and landed a show on PBS called The Magic of Oil Painting. He climbed the ranks of success until eventually he won an Emmy Award and started a line of painting supplies and books. It seemed he had made it and that his days of struggling were over. That was until Bob Ross entered the picture.
At the same time as Bill Alexander’s career was skyrocketing, Bob Ross began to teach painting lessons in Orlando, Florida. He eventually caught the attention of PBS executives, who were mesmerized by his calm cadence, familiar look, and deft painting skills. It wasn’t long before Ross replaced Alexander’s show with his own program, The Joy of Painting.
To market the new show and underscore its legitimacy, PBS filmed a commercial of Alexander passing a brush to Ross, saying, “I hand off my mighty brush to a mighty man, and that is Bob Ross.” But while it seemed like a friendly exchange, both Alexander and his fans would later have a mouthful to say about it.
In 1991, William Alexander told The New York Times that he felt he’d been slighted by his former mentee, Bob Ross. He claimed to have trained Ross on how to paint an entire landscape in 30 minutes and said that he himself had originated the phrase, “happy little trees.” He added, “[Ross] is copying me — what bothers me is not that he betrayed me, but that he thinks he can do better.”
Alexander’s fans also expressed their anger and frustration over the fact that, according to them, Ross had copied Alexander in every way, from the way he painted, down to his business model and the lingo he used. And as fans would later discover, Ross and Alexander shared more than what was just seen through their respective television programs.
Like Alexander, Ross also had a military career before becoming a famous painter. He served in the US Air Force for 20 years, eventually reaching the rank of master sergeant. During his tenure, he developed a love of painting and learned how to mimic Alexander’s technique by watching his show. It also helped him establish his soft tones, after decades of shouting orders.
He started selling gold-mining pans with Alaskan landscapes painted on the inside, and eventually earned enough money to retire from the Air Force. Ross was such a talented painter that not only was he able to land a show on PBS, but he was also able to accumulate a large fan base as a result of his uniqueness. Part of what contributed to his distinctiveness was how he achieved this — but even his technique wouldn’t save his works from disappearing.
NEXT: What exactly was it that helped Bob Ross win over such an impressive fanbase?
Bob Ross fans loved him for a number of reasons, one of which was his style of painting. Part of what made him so unique was the fact that in the 11 years fans watched him paint on screen, he almost never painted humans as his subjects.
There are only a few instances in which Ross painted a person within his landscape. For example, in “Morning Walk,” he depicted two small people as they walked through a forest of colossal trees. In “Campfire,” he painted a figure resting against a tree as they sat by a fire. Speaking of which, “Campfire” was apparently one of Ross’ least favorite landscapes according to an insider. An absence of people wasn’t the only distinctive feature of his art.
One thing Ross painted a lot of were trees. According to FiveThirtyEight, 91% of his paintings showcased deciduous or coniferous trees, while only 2% of his paintings had flowers and palm trees in them. Fans have long speculated about the reasoning behind this, with some saying it was because he lived in Florida and these plants were everywhere.
We don’t see how someone who lives among palm trees and flowers could get sick of them, but to each their own? Moreover, although Ross was known for his catchphrase, “happy little clouds,” less than half of his landscapes actually featured clouds. Beyond his painting, Ross would also come to be recognized for far more than just his art — and its eventual disappearance.
One of the most instantly recognizable traits Bob Ross possessed was his hair. Just about anyone could spot him thanks to those fluffy, permed locks. But unbeknownst to many, Ross didn’t always have a perm. He only chose to have a head full of curls because he believed it would be cheaper to maintain.
To Ross, paying for a perm every once in a while and letting it grow out was a way to cut costs and avoid having to get frequent haircuts. The artist was said to actually have hated every curl on his head, but because his company logo wound up being him with an afro of curls, he felt he could never change it. And the things for which he is most remembered get even weirder than his hair.
Another habit Ross was known for was welcoming guest animals onto his show, such as his own pet squirrels. One of his adorable critters was named Bobette, while the others were Peapod and Peapod Jr. Each appeared in a number of episodes, along with other animals he kept in his backyard, which he’d turned into an animal care center.
Ross loved animals and assisted a number of rehabilitation centers in Muncie, Indiana, where The Joy of Painting was filmed. Back in his Orlando home, he was said to have cared for just about any animal in need of love and attention. Knowing what animals live in Florida, the thought of that can seem pretty freaky. While fans loved Ross’ quirkiness, those part of the mainstream art establishment were a bit less enthused.
While many fans loved Bob Ross’ peculiar persona, more mainstream artists labeled him “kitsch.” Critics considered his work to be cheap, gimmicky, and easily reproduced, and for that reason, they didn’t take him seriously. Senior art critic for New York magazine, Jerry Saltz, spoke on this topic, coming to the defense.
He said, “People think that [Ross is] just kitsch and cute and a little Buddha and fun happy little accidents.” He added, “But Bob breaks down painting into its component parts…And then he adds a beautiful bit at the end: You can do this, too.” Ross came to be an American icon who exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own. Yet after little over a decade on air, his career would be cut short — and his paintings would inexplicably vanish.
NEXT: Bob Ross comes to leave behind a legacy.
Regular viewers of The Joy of Painting had no idea that Bob Ross was ill towards the end of his television career. In fact, only his close friends and family knew that he had been secretly battling lymphoma while filming the last season of the show. According to The Orlando Sentinel, Ross battled the disease for years before losing his life at 52 years old in 1995.
He was laid to rest in Woodland Memorial Park in Gotha, Florida. Ross’ grave is marked by a plaque that reads, “Bob Ross, Television Artist.” As a tribute to the artist, fans are said to leave miniature animal figurines by the graveside, as well as their own artwork. One fan in particular is paying tribute to Ross in the most unusual way.
One of Bob Ross’ most adamant fans, Nicole Bonneau, has made it her mission to recreate each and every one of the landscapes Ross painted in the 403 episodes of his show, The Joy of Painting. She believes it will take a total of 10 years. Talk about dedication!
Bonneau displays all of her recreated paintings across multiple social media accounts under the title Almighty Painting. When asked about the reasoning behind her decision to take on such a large project, she cited understanding Ross’ dark comedy as a main driver. A superfan and art school graduate, Nicole Bonneau has interesting insight into Ross’ psyche. In fact, she says there was more to the artist than what meets the eye.
Bonneau explained that while many fans believed Ross to be “sweet, optimistic, and genuine,” some of what he said and painted suggested otherwise. For example, he often quipped something that was “incredibly dark” and totally unexpected, and his brushstrokes reflected just that.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Bonneau said, “Whenever he paints an old cabin, he always makes up some story about what happened to the owner of it. Sometimes he has a bad drinking problem and that’s why he doesn’t take care of his house. Sometimes he falls into the river and drowns.” Morose comedy at its finest! Another thing unbeknownst to many viewers is just how many paintings Ross actually painted — and where they mysteriously wound up following his death.
Fan favorite Bob Ross painted three copies of each landscape painting that viewers saw on The Joy of Painting. The first version he painted before taping for the episode started, and he would use it as a reference in order to paint the second version on screen. The third version would be painted towards the end of the show. Ross made this one more intricate to include in his instructional books.
This adds up to approximately 1,143 paintings that are circling somewhere in the world. Today, it’s easy for fans to find Bob Ross key chains, T-shirts, chia pets, and even air fresheners. But when it comes to getting their hands on one of his 1,143 original paintings, it’s nearly impossible. And now we know why.
In July 2019, The New York Times made a documentary about the difficulty in finding an original Bob Ross painting. For years, fans had flooded auctions, galleries, and the Internet in search of one of his famous landscapes. They wrote blog posts on how the paintings’ absence didn’t make any sense, and expressed their interest in buying one if they were ever on sale.
News sites even wrote about how tricky it was, and people wondered if these originals had in fact disappeared. Finally, The New York Times set out to solve the mystery of what happened to the huge collection of paintings that are worth millions and whose whereabouts no one seemed to know. They couldn’t believe what they found.
NEXT: The mystery behind Bob Ross’ paintings is solved at last.
Thanks to the investigation by The New York Times, one of pop culture’s strangest mysteries was finally solved. The overwhelming majority of Bob Ross’ paintings had all been hidden away in boxes. They weren’t kept in a climate-controlled room and handled by people wearing gloves, but were instead packed away in a storage room at Bob Ross Inc. in northern Virginia.
While the exact reasoning behind why the paintings had been kept in storage remains somewhat unclear, the president of Bob Ross Inc., Joan Kowalski, did say that selling them “never really occurred to [them],” as it “wasn’t really Bob’s thing.” That being said, just because Bob Ross Inc. is closed to the public doesn’t make it impossible to see some of Ross’ art firsthand.
Some of Bob Ross’ original landscapes are on display at the Bob Ross Art Workshop & Gallery in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Not only does the gallery house a great deal of Ross’ original collection of paintings, but it also offers classes to learn his unique style of painting.
Also opening to the public in October 2020 is an exhibit titled Bob Ross Experience at the real Muncie, Indiana home where The Joy of Painting was taped. The exhibit will feature some of his actual paintings, along with the original palette he used to paint them. It will also have interactive elements aimed at bringing the show to life for its visitors. Yet friends of Ross claim the artist would have been shocked to know an exhibit is made of him — especially in this next place.
In 2019, Bob Ross Inc. donated a number of Ross’ original art pieces to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Among different paintings that were donated are a stepladder-turned-easel, handwritten notes, and fan mail. The entertainment and sports curator for the National Museum of American History, Eric Jentsch, said the hardest part about the new partnership was choosing which paintings to include.
Jentsch went to Bob Ross’ headquarters in Herndon, Virginia to handpick from the storage boxes which paintings best showcased Ross’ talent. The partnership with the Smithsonian seems ironic when you consider a particular statement that had been made by Ross nearly three decades earlier.
In 1994, talk show host Phil Donahue interviewed Bob Ross and asked him a question regarding what he believed his legacy would look like years and years down the line. Donahue asked Ross to “say out loud your work will never hang in a museum,” to which Ross responded, “Well, maybe it will. But probably not the Smithsonian.”
Ross echoed this sentiment in a 1991 interview with The Times in which he said, “There are thousands of very, very talented artists who will never be known, even after they are dead. Most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don’t need any more.” Still, fans can expect to find Ross’ art featured alongside the works of Julia Child and Mister Rogers. Such a triumph would surely come as a surprise for the painter. Secretly, his show hadn’t been lucrative at all.
Ross skyrocketed to fame thanks to his show on PBS, which is a nonprofit station that is said to receive 15% of its entire funding from the United States government. Still, what Ross revealed to The Orlando Sentinel in a 1990 interview left many fans shocked.
Ross admitted that he was never paid for his time working on The Joy of Painting. He said, “People see you on television and they think you make the same amount of money that Clint Eastwood does. But this is PBS. All these shows are done for free.” Ross made his living in other ways — some of which are rather unexpected.
If Bob Ross did not make any money off of filming The Joy of Painting for 11 years, then what exactly did he actually make his fortune on? According to insiders, he has his art corporation to thank for the wealth he was able to accumulate.
Bob Ross Inc. produced a wide array of how-to books and over 100 instructional videos. Ross also sold his own branded art materials and had a team of about 150 art teachers across the globe. Not only that, but he painted for charity and public events. This means there are still a number of paintings in the world that are not under the protection of Bob Ross Inc. and have thus been unaccounted for. Unsurprisingly, they have showed up online…but for a surprising price.
Though it is unlikely to find a Bob Ross original anything, we would not say it is totally impossible. In fact, Bob Ross Inc.’s president, Annette Kowalski, told The New York Times that a pair of Ross’ old gold-mining pans appeared in an antique shop in Alaska — and sold for $3,500 each within one day.
But that’s not as expensive as it gets. Some paintings have even turned up on eBay for a staggering amount of money, to the tune of $55,000. Prior to shelling out that type of money for a piece that is found online, those at Bob Ross Inc. have an important tip to take into consideration.
Those at Bob Ross Inc. claim many people over the years have attempted to sell fake paintings as originals online. To help protect against this, fellow artist and one of Bob Ross’ dear friends, Annette Kowalski, offers to inspect each of the paintings that are sent to Bob Ross Inc.
Kowalski looks at both the brushwork and Ross’ signature to authenticate the painting. In just a few seconds, she can tell what was hand-painted by Ross and what wasn’t. And while she couldn’t describe how she’s able to know, her fellow Bob Ross Inc. employee related it to describing the taste of chocolate. Perhaps as equally pressing a question as to whether a painting is real is how Bob Ross Inc. came under the ownership of the Kowalskis.
If Bob Ross Inc. manages all things Bob Ross-related, then who are the Kowalskis who seem to be running the show long after his passing? And why are they the ones at the center of The New York Times documentary that uncovered the baffling mystery?
As it turns out, Annette and Walt Kowalski helped finance the start of Bob Ross’ career. Not only that, but Annette considers herself “the discoverer” of Bob Ross. Together, the Kowalskis shared part of Bob Ross Inc.’s ownership with Bob and his wife, Jane. But after Jane passed away in 1992 and Bob passed away in 1995, ownership fell entirely into their lap. Thankfully, the Kowalskis are helping carry on Bob Ross’ legacy: a legacy so strong that his name has showed up where you’d least think to find it.
Bob Ross left such a legacy behind that there is even a bar crawl around the United States in his name. One such bar crawl takes place at Wine & Design in Rocky River, Ohio. According to their website, the event lasts for a total of two hours.
Participants come, paint for a bit, and even receive a complimentary Bob Ross wig. Dressed as Ross, they carry on the night by visiting a number of neighboring bars, which have both drink and food specials available. Decades after his passing, the Bob Ross fan base keeps getting stronger and stronger.
Sources: NY Times, Grunge, Time