Artist Spotlight: Margaret Keane & Her Big-Eyed Children

Painting

In the late 1950s and ‘60s, Margaret Keane’s paintings were some of the most popular at the time. Her paintings graced the walls of major banks, art shows and galleries in New York City, and more. Even the iconic artist Andy Warhol praised Keane’s work, calling her work “just terrific” and “good.”

Unfortunately for Margaret at the time, no one knew who she was as all her works were sold under her husband’s name.

In this article, we put our artist spotlight on the American artist Margaret Keane, her unique art style, and the incredible story of her taking back control of her art.

Who Is Margaret Keane?

Margaret D.H. Keane was originally born Peggy Doris Hawkins in 1927. As a child, she suffered from an ear condition that left her unable to hear properly and was said to use people’s eyes to understand what they were saying. She was drawing at an early age and attending classes at a private art college in Tennessee. She attended a design school in New York City for a year before going on to experiment in Kitsch paintings.

Margaret met Walter Keane in the mid-1950s. Formerly a real estate broker, Walter had closed his and his ex-wife’s real estate firm to pursue a full-time career in painting. He met her while she was making charcoal sketches at a fairground. Margaret was married to a Frank Ulbrich and had a child with him, but she divorced him and married Walter in 1955.

The Secret Artist of the ’50s and ’60s

When Walter began selling her artwork, she had no idea he was selling them under his own name. When she found out, he threatened to hurt her if she said otherwise. He later convinced her that people were more likely to buy the painting if they believed he, the seller, was also the artist. He even asked her to teach her to paint in her style so he could do it himself, but his skills were so mediocre that he blamed her for not teaching him properly and insisted she paint while he took the credit. As a result, she was forced to publicly acknowledge him as the artist, taking solace that at least her artworks were being shown.

Over the next few years, Walter rose to critical acclaim as one of the most popular and commercially successful artists during that time. Walter began to weave a narrative about himself, making everyone believe he left his “highly-successful” real estate career to become a successful artist.

In reality, all the paintings were Margaret’s, who would paint non-stop for 16 hours a day. In 1965, the divorced, but Margaret promised that she’d keep painting for him (in the 2014 film Big Eyes, it’s shown that Walter doesn’t agree to a divorce unless she produces 100 more paintings for him). Margaret left and established herself and her daughter in Hawaii while Walter drank away his fortune and moved to a fisherman’s shack in California.

The Artist Revealed

After sending around 30 paintings, she realized she no longer wanted to play a part in Walter’s charades and, in 1970, admitted on a UPI radio broadcast that she was the true artist behind her husband’s paintings. Walter denied this and claimed the art as his and publicly shamed her, even going so far as to accuse her of being a “boozing, sex-starved psychopath” (which is ironic, considering his alcoholism and infidelity for most of their marriage). He claimed that Margaret, who had converted and become a Jehovah’s Witness, was in league with the church in an attempt to defraud him. There was an invitation to a paint-out in Union Square so that they could prove who the real painter was, and while Margaret attended, Walter did not.

In 1986, one reporter from USA Today believed him, accusing Margaret of wrongly thinking he was dead and trying to steal credit for his work. She sued her husband and USA Today for libel and slander. Their trial took place in Honolulu federal court.

Margaret lost her libel case with USA Today because she was complicit in fooling the public that Walter was the real artist. But her slander case against her husband still stood. The judge decided to challenge both of them to an hour-long paint-off to show everyone the truth. Margaret completed her work in 53 minutes; Walter refused to paint because of an alleged sore shoulder.

Margaret won the case and was awarded $4 million. Unfortunately, Walter had drunk most of his fortune away, so she would never see that money. It was later overturned, but she was more interested in getting the credit rather than the money. Walter was diagnosed with delusional disorder by a court psychologist and went down in history as a plagiarist.

Keane’s Art Style

Painting

Margaret Keane’s art style is portraits of women, children, and animals in oil or mixed media. The subjects in her portraits are often depicted with big doe-like eyes. As an artist, she has always been interested in eyes as she considered them the windows to the soul.

There’s a noticeable shift in her art style from the ’50s onwards which has been attributed to her life experiences. When she lived with Walter and was painting in secret, her children were depicted as sad, crying, and found in dark and desolate places. After the divorce and relocation to Hawaii, Margaret’s big-eyed children began to show semblances of smiles. After becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, marrying her third husband, and following astrology, her work became happier and brighter.

During the ’60s and ’70s, her art achieved commercial success as they were copied into inexpensive reproductions on prints and everyday items like cups and plates. These were critically acclaimed pieces during its time, but in the mid-’70s fell out of favor. However, her art had a major renaissance in 2014 after the release of the biopic, Big Eyes. 

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