Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1927, Keane enrolled in art classes when she was 10 years old. After attending the Traphagen School of Fashion, an art and design school in New York, she developed her signature style – melancholy renderings of cartoonish women, children and animals, often referred to as wide-eyed “waifs.” .
“Boy and Poodle” (1982) by Margaret Keane. Credit: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, California
In 1955, she married real estate agent Walter Keane, who offered to sell her paintings while surreptitiously passing them off as his own. It wasn’t until accompanying him to the San Francisco nightclub The Hungry i, where he often hawked his work, that she discovered the deception.
Keane eventually agreed to continue with the arrangement, and her husband enjoyed significant business success. The paintings sold widely in the 1960s, not only as canvases and prints, but also on plates, postcards, and mugs.
Works divide the art world. But while some critics have dismissed them as cliché and overly kitschy, they’ve also been hailed by the likes of Andy Warhol. “I think what Keane has done is great,” the pop artist told Life magazine, in a quote that opened Burton’s film. “If it was bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Walter and Margaret Keane in 1960. Credit: Archive Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann
After divorcing Walter in 1965, Keane moved from California to Hawaii and began publicly taking credit for her work. When her former husband rejected the claim, she organized a “painting” in Union Square in San Francisco, although he declined the challenge.
In 1986, he was again asked to prove he could recreate the paintings’ distinctive style, this time in front of a jury. Keane had sued him (and USA Today) for defamation in Honolulu court, after he continued to claim credit. The judge challenged Keane and her ex-husband to paint a child with big eyes, although the latter refused, citing a shoulder injury. She finished a painting for the yard in less than an hour.
The jury was convinced and Keane was awarded $4 million, although this sum was later reversed. She never received any compensation. “I didn’t care about the money,” she later said, according to “Citizen Keane,” a book about the scandal. “I just wanted to establish the fact that I did the paintings.”
Keane’s work saw a resurgence with the 2014 release of Burton’s “Big Eyes,” in which the artist was played by Amy Adams. On Wednesday, the film’s co-writer Larry Karaszewski paid tribute to Keane on Twitter, saying he was “grateful” to have spent “so much time getting to know his beautiful mind.”
“Keiki Lisa” by Keane (1986). Credit: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, California
“It took a decade to bring ‘Big Eyes’ to the screen,” he wrote, adding, “She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”
“His love, creative ingenuity (sic) and passion for continuing to create new work will be missed until his passing,” the statement read.
Top image: Margaret Keane pictured at the New York premiere of “Big Eyes” in 2014.
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