The Big-Eyed Children

Her husband took credit for all her work and when she found out, she didn’t expose him.

“Big Eyes” paintings of Margaret Keane on display.

For years, Walter Keane was known as one of the most commercially successful artists in the 1960s. His paintings of children, women, and animals with sentimentally huge eyes, known as “big eyes”, were labeled “the most popular art being produced in the free world.” But Walter Keane couldn’t even paint.

It was his wife, Margaret, who was creating all the paintings and kept Walter’s secret for all those years.

Born in 1927 in Nashville, Keane became known for her “big-eyed” paintings in the 1950s. According to the book “Big Eyes, The Film, The Art”, a botched ear operation left Keane unable to hear in one ear. This was when she began to focus on people’s eyes to understand them.

However, things took an unexpected turn when Keane’s second husband, Walter Keane, began selling her artwork as his own.

He had me sitting in a corner, and he was over there, talking, selling paintings when somebody walked over to me and said: ‘Do you paint too?’ And I suddenly thought, ‘Is he taking credit for my paintings?’

He was; her paintings were simply signed Keane, making it easy for Walter to claim them as his own. But Margaret was the painter of the big eyes — every one of them.

Walter managed to persuade her to continue letting him take credit for all her work. As a female artist, Keane believed that she would not sell as well as a man, which may explain why even in the 1960s, when her artwork was making millions, she did not reveal herself as the true artist. She remained in the shadows.

Deceit turned to eventual justice for Margaret Keane and the body of work she created.

It was only in 1970 that Margaret decided to reveal that she was the real artist behind her paintings. Walter argued that Margaret was lying, which she then took him to court over. At the trial in 1986, they had a “paint-off” to produce one of Keane’s characteristic paintings in under an hour. Walter refused whereas Margaret comfortable finished her drawing — how badass is that! There was little doubt that she had been the real artist and was awarded $4 million in damages.

Today, Margaret Keane’s paintings continue to sell well across America. The popularity of her artworks received a boost, with the 2014 Tim Burton movie “Big Eyes”, starring Amy Adams, which brought massive attention to the Keane’s beguiling biography. Margaret continues to paint with her work on display at the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco.



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