Margaret D. H. Keane (born Peggy Doris Hawkins, September 15, 1927) is an American artist known for her paintings of subjects with big eyes. She mainly paints women, children, or animals in oil or mixed media. The work achieved commercial success through inexpensive reproductions on prints, plates, and cups. It has been critically acclaimed.
The work was originally attributed to Keane’s husband, Walter Keane. After their divorce in the 1960s, Margaret soon claimed credit, which was established after a court “paint-off” in Hawaii.
A resurgence of interest in Margaret Keane’s work followed the release of Tim Burton‘s 2014 biopic Big Eyes. She maintains a gallery in San Francisco which boasts “the largest collection of Margaret Keane’s art in the entire world. “In light of the great gulf between her work’s popularity and its critical lampooning, she has been called the “Wayne Newton of the art world.
Keane was born in Nashville, Tennessee. When she was two, her eardrum was permanently damaged during a mastoid operation. Unable to hear properly she learned to watch the eyes of the person talking to her to understand them.
Keane started drawing as a child, and at age 10 she took classes at the Watkins Institute in Nashville Keane painted her first oil painting of two little girls, one crying and one laughing when she was 10 years old and gave the drawing to her grandmother. Keane lost the painting in a poker game when she was 12. She was well known at the local church for her sketches of angels with big eyes and floppy wings.
At 18 she attended the Traphagen School Of Design in New York City for a year. She began work painting clothing and baby cribs in the 1950s until she finally began a career painting portraits. Early on, Margaret began experimenting in Kitsch. She worked in both acrylic- and oil-based paints, but her work was limited to women, children and familiar animals.
Sometime in the mid-1950s, Margaret, married with a child, met Walter Keane. As Walter Keane told the story when he was at the height of his popularity, he saw her sitting alone at a “well known North Beach bistro and he was attracted by her large eyes.[ At the time Walter was also married, worked as a real estate salesman and painted on the side. He would later tell reporters, however, that he had given up his “highly successful real estate career. Margaret found him “suave, gregarious and charming. The two married in 1955 in Honolulu.
Margaret has said that he began selling her characteristic “big eyes” paintings immediately, but unknown to her, claimed it was his own work. The principal venue for his sales was the hungry I, a comedy club in San Francisco When she discovered his deception, she remained silent. She later explained her behavior: “I was afraid of him because he [threatened] to have me done in if I said anything.” But Margaret even publicly acknowledged him as the artist, while later claiming it was “tortuous” for her. She rationalized the situation on the ground that “[a]t least they were being shown.”
In 1957 Walter began exhibiting the “big eyes” paintings as his own. In February the work was shown on a wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito. He took nine paintings to New Orleans, which he claims to have sold during Mardi Gras. That summer Walter arranged for a showing at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Show in New York City. Displaying his talent for promotion, during that trip he arranged for a showing in August at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and another in a small East Side gallery for the same month.
Walter began developing a mythology about himself and to a lesser extent Margaret. He eventually began promotions of “The Painting Keanes. During this time her artwork was sold under the name of her husband, Walter Keane, who claimed credit for her paintings. At the height of the artworks’ popularity, she was painting non-stop for 16 hours a day.
In 1970, Keane announced on a radio broadcast she was the real creator of the paintings that had been attributed to her ex-husband Walter Keane. After Keane revealed the truth, a “paint-out” between Margaret and Walter were staged in San Francisco’s Union Square, arranged by Bill Flang, a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner and attended by the media and Margaret. Walter did not show up. In 1986, she sued both Walter and USA Today in federal court for an article claiming Walter was the real artist. At the trial, the judge famously ordered both Margaret and Walter to each create a big-eyed painting in the courtroom, to determine who was telling the truth. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder, whereas Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes. After a three-week trial, the jury awarded her $4 million in damages. After the verdict, Keane said “I really feel that justice has triumphed. It’s been worth it, even if I don’t see any of that four million dollars.”A federal appeals court upheld the verdict of defamation in 1990 but overturned the $4 million damage award. Keane says she doesn’t care about the money and just wanted to establish the fact that she had done the paintings.
The artworks Keane created while living in the shadow of her husband tended to depict sad-looking children in dark settings. After she left Walter, moved to Hawaii and, after years of following astrology, palmistry, handwriting analysis, and transcendental meditation, became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, her work took on a happier, brighter style. “The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul,” Keane explains. Many galleries now advertise her artworks as having “tears of joy” or “tears of happiness.” She described her subjects thus: “These are the paintings of children in paradise. They are what I think the world is going to look like when God’s will is done.
Hollywood actors Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, and Jerry Lewis commissioned Keane to paint their portraits. In the 1990s, Tim Burton, a Keane art collector, and director of the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes about the life of Margaret Keane commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie. Keane’s art was bought and presented to the United Nations Children’s Fund in 1961 by the Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation. Keane’s big eyes paintings have influenced toy designs, Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes dolls, and the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls
Keane’s paintings are recognizable by the oversized, doe-like eyes of her subjects. Keane says she was always interested in the eyes and used to draw them in her school books. She began painting her signature “Keane eyes” when she started painting portraits of children. “Children do have big eyes. When I’m doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Keane said. Keane focused on the eyes, as they show the inner person more. Keane attributes Amedeo Modigliani’s work as a major influence on the way she has painted women since 1959. Other artists who influenced her in use of color, dimension, and composition include Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and Picasso. Despite her claims to fine art, she has never been a critical success; instead, she remained “known for her sticky-sweet paintings of doe-eyed waifs that became the middlebrow rage in the late 1950s and 1960s, then kitschy collectibles of high-ironic style decades
Keane’s first husband was Frank Richard Ulbrich, and they had a daughter together. In 1955, she married Walter Keane. In 1964, she left Walter and divorced him in 1965, and relocated from San Francisco to Hawaii. In Hawaii, Keane met Honolulusportswriter Dan McGuire and married him in 1970. She credits McGuire for helping her to become less timid and afraid after her divorce from Walter. Keane lived in Hawaii for more than 25 years before returning to California in 1991. She now resides in Napa County, California, with her daughter Jane and son-in-law Don Swiger In 2017 Keane began hospice care. She is a Jehovah’s Witness.
In the 1960s, Walter Keane was feted for his sentimental portraits that sold by the millions. But in fact, his wife Margaret was the artist, working in virtual slavery to maintain his success.
This story begins in Berlin in 1946. A young American named Walter Keane was in Europe to learn how to be a painter. And there he was, staring heartbroken at the big-eyed children fighting over scraps of food in the rubbish.
He had been telling his patrons a giant lie. Margaret was the painter of the big eyes – every one of them. Walter might well have seen sad children in postwar Berlin, but he hadn’t painted them, because he couldn’t paint to save his life. Their first two years were happy, but all that changed the night of the Hungry i.
Margaret felt trapped. She wanted to leave, but she didn’t know-how. How would she support herself and her daughter? “So finally I went along with it,” she says. “And it was just tearing me apart.”
By the early 1960s, Keane prints and postcards were selling in the millions.
After 10 years of marriage, eight of them horrific, they divorced. Margaret promised Walter that she’d keep on secretly painting for him. And she did for a while. But after she’d delivered maybe 20 or 30 big eyes to him, she suddenly thought: “No more lies. From now on, I will only ever tell the truth.”
This is why, in October 1970, Margaret told a reporter from the UPI everything. “He wanted to learn to paint,” she revealed, “and I tried to teach him to paint when he was home, which wasn’t often. He couldn’t even learn to paint.”
And so on. Walter went on the offensive, swearing that the big eyes were his and calling Margaret a “boozing, sex-starved psychopath” who he once discovered having sex with several parking-lot attendants.
Margaret became a Jehovah’s Witness. She moved to Hawaii and started painting big-eyed children swimming in azure seas with tropical fish. In these Hawaii paintings, you can see small, cautious smiles begin to form on the faces of the children. Walter’s life wasn’t so happy. He moved to a fisherman’s shack in La Jolla, California, and began to drink from morning until night. He told the few reporters still interested in him that Margaret was in league with the Jehovah’s Witnesses to defraud him.
Margaret sued Walter. The judge challenged them both to paint a child with big eyes, right there in court, in front of everyone. Margaret painted hers in 53 minutes. Walter said he couldn’t because he had a sore shoulder. In fact, the walls of Margaret’s home are filled with big-eye paintings – children, poodles, kittens. There’s barely an inch of empty wall space.
Margaret won the court case, of course. She was awarded $4m, but she never saw a penny of it because Walter had drunk his fortune away. A court psychologist diagnosed him with a rare mental condition called delusional disorder. I ask Margaret if she knows anything about delusional disorder. She shakes her head and says she can’t even remember Walter being diagnosed with it.
She was awarded a $4m settlement in court in 1986 – but never saw a penny
Walter died in 2000. He gave up drinking towards the end, but you get the sense that he missed those days, writing in his memoir that sobriety was his “new awakening, away from the drinking world of exciting parties and art buyers”.As Walter, an alcoholic had drunk his fortune away. A court psychologist diagnosed him with a rare mental condition called delusional disorder.
By the 1970s, the big eyes had fallen from favor. but now, suddenly, there is a kind of renaissance. A Tim Burton biopic, Big Eyes, is about to be released.
Margaret smiles, looking thrilled, and I realize that sometimes a wrong is so great it needs something as dramatic as a major biopic in which you’re the hero to heal the wounds.
Their story is now the subject of a new movie, “Big Eyes”, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, who have both won Golden Globe nominations.
For years, Margaret Keane was kept behind locked doors – painting the pictures of the wide-eyed waifs that made her husband Walter Keane an art sensation.
Feted by celebrities during the 1950s and 60s, Walter, ever a showman, took credit for his wife’s work until Margaret found the courage to come forward and tell the truth.
Her the story is told in the new movie Big Eyes, which premieres in New York. Amy Adams plays Margaret, while Christoph Waltz is the controlling, egomaniac Walter. Both actors have won Golden Globe nominations for their work.
In a softly spoken voice, Margaret, now 87, tells the journalists: ‘I think Walter would have enjoyed every minute of it – all he cared about was being a celebrity, and of course,’ she muses: ‘he would have just claimed he was an artist until the very end, he would have loved the attention.’
She adds: ‘Christoph did a wonderful job, I think he’s portrayed Walter exactly as he was, but I think Walter was maybe a little crazier.
With a soft chuckle, Margaret says: ‘I think Christoph thinks he did the paintings now!’
After viewing the movie, directed by Tim Burton and produced by The Weinstein Corporation, Margaret admits: ‘It was a very emotional experience, it It was very traumatic to see it.
‘To see it so big and intensified, it was quite an experience. I cried and I laughed and then I cried again, I really was in shock for about two days afterward.
‘My daughter had the same reaction, she was in shock too – it made it all come back alive to us. It was really emotionally overwhelming.’
But, she says: ‘It really is wonderful to have the whole truth come out and it’s very satisfying to have it really portrayed like it really happened.’
Margaret met Walter in 1955 when he charmed her at an outdoor art exhibition in San Francisco.
Divorced, with a daughter, they soon married – and soon Walter was passing off Margaret’s paintings of the sad children as his own, along with the story that they were based on youngsters he had seen in postwar Berlin in 1946.
Staying with Walter for the sake of her daughter – while the paintings were printed on to postcards and posters sold in millions across America – Margaret was kept a virtual prisoner in her own home while her husband frolicked in the pool outside – and brought other women into their bed.
Banned from having her own friends, she told The Guardian: ‘The door was always locked, the curtains closed…when he wasn’t home he’d usually call every hour to make sure I hadn’t gone out. I was in jail.‘ He was always pressuring me to do more. ‘Do one with a clown costume’.’ Or: ‘Do two children on a rocking horse.’
Walter, it must be said, could not paint, a fact Margaret would seize upon, when finally in a court case in a 1986 – 21 years after they divorced – she was declared to be the true creator of the paintings.
The verdict came only after a judge asked both Margaret and Walter to paint in court. Walter claimed he had a sore shoulder and could not pick up a brush.
Margaret thinks that making the decision to turn her life story and what was once so painful into a movie was not an easy decision. “It was difficult to me . I turned down four or five other offers and then the writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski came to me and I trusted them to do it the way I wanted it done, and we started talking and I liked what they did.
Now a committed Jehovah’s Witness, Margaret – who has a cameo as a little old lady sitting on a park bench in Big Eyes – says: ‘I would like to think all our gifts and talents and abilities come from God.
‘When I was married to Walter, I did rely on my faith, at that time I hadn’t yet become a Jehovah’s witness, so I didn’t know HIS name, but I knew there was a God.’
Margaret still paints every day ‘when I can’ at her home in Napa, Northern California.
Asked about Amy Adams’ portrayal of her, Margaret tells how the pair bonded before filming and said that Amy looks just like her in the movie, ‘only prettier’, adding: ‘I knew she’d do a good job, but I had no idea it would be so fantastic.’
The movie has already been screened at Art Basel in Miami, while art royalty including Diana Picasso and Eileen Guggenheim attended a screening hosted by mega-art dealer Larry Gagosian with the film’s Oscar-winning star Christoph Waltz at Manhattan’s Crosby St. Hotel.
Introducing the film, actor Christoph said: ‘The art is kitsch, but the Keanes’ story certainly isn’t.’
22, October 2019
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