January 20, 2012

Margaret Keane: The Big Eyes are Mine

margaret keane big eyed art postcard garden
Keane Big Eyed Art postcard - In the Garden.

Call it Big Eyed Art, or talk about the Sad Eyes Children, the Wide Eyed Waifs, or the Doe Eyed Orphans, it’s the genre that originated with the art of Margaret Keane and that was at its height of popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Frowned upon by the ‘serious’ art community but loved by many. Margaret Keane is the Queen of Big Eyed Art. Her work and the big eyed art movement have been rediscovered by a new generation and have once again become increasingly collectible.

Keane postcard - A Boy and his Dog at the Beach early 1960s.

However, if you happen to come across one of her early paintings, you will most likely not see her name on it. It will be signed just ‘Keane’ or even ‘Walter Keane’. At the time, Margaret was married to Walter Keane. Walter didn’t only do the selling and promoting, turning the ‘brand’ into a mass marketed art phenomenon, he was also claiming to be the painter of the Big Eyes. His name was on all the work and it was he who did the interviews and taking all the glory.
In the beginning Margaret was unaware of what her husband was doing. "Every night Walter went down to sell the paintings … I stayed home painting a lot of children with different city backgrounds. It suited me fine. I was extremely timid and shy." When she discovered what he was up to, the sadness in her paintings intensified. "I was painting my own deepest inner feelings, and I was searching for answers. The eyes were asking 'Why are we here, why is there suffering? What is the purpose of life?' " Margaret admits that her husband had a real genius for promotions and selling. "But it was a nightmare when Walter threatened to kill me and our two daughters if we told anyone. The whole thing just snowballed and then it was too late to say it wasn’t him who painted them,” she said. “I’ll always regret that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my rights. However, it taught me the value of being truthful and that neither fame, love, money nor anything else is worth a bad conscience.”


Walter Keane credit on the back of a 1960s postcard.

By then millions of Keane paintings, prints and plates were being sold in galleries and department stores. When Walter put up posters with a painting reproduced on them to advertise their gallery, their popularity was so big that the posters were ripped down straight away by their fans.


Margaret Keane drawing her big eyes.

After a 10-year marriage Margaret couldn’t go on with the deception and left Walter in 1965 and moved to Hawaii. After a period of depression and little painting, she started to rebuild her life and later married again. It was in 1970 when she wanted to set the record straight. Walter had been talking to Life Magazine comparing himself to Rembrandt, El Greco and Michelangelo and saying that none of them could top him as a painter of eyes.
Margaret publicly challenged Walter to a painting contest, "Give us both paint and brush and canvas and turn us loose. We'll see who can paint eyes." A paint-off between the two was set up in San Francisco’s Union Square. Margaret was there, with brushes in hand. Walter was a no-show, but did state that he was flabbergasted and even somewhat amused by Margaret’s claims. Life magazine covered the event in an article that corrected the previous erroneous story that attributed the paintings to her former husband.
The dispute continued to simmer, and when Walter, in 1986, told USA Today that Margaret was claiming credit for what was his work, she hit him with a slander suit. Margaret and Walter hadn't seen each other for nearly 20 years when they walked into federal court. It became a heated 3½-week trial. Margaret brought some of the original paintings to the courtroom and subjects testified they posed for them. Walter kept calling Margaret a liar, so the judge set up two easels and asked them both to paint. Margaret painted in front of the jury, a small boy's face with those unmistakable big eyes. "They gave me an hour," she says. "It was the fastest I ever painted in my life." When it was Walter’s turn, he complained of a sore shoulder and declined to paint.
A unanimous jury awarded her all the credit for the work. Plus $4 million for emotional distress and damaged reputation she had suffered because of Walter's false statements.

Walter claimed to have no money and vowed to appeal. “I was painting these children 10 years before this woman had ever heard of me” he said of his former wife. Four years later, federal appeals court upheld the verdict that Walter had defamed Margaret, but overturned the $4 million damage award. Rather than endure a new trial on the damage issue, Margaret dismissed her claim for the money. "I didn't care about the money," she said. "I just wanted to establish the fact that I did the paintings."

Walter Keane died in 2000 at the age of 85, insisting till the end of his life he that he was the creator of the Big Eyes. As he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1991, "I painted the waifs of the world."
Margaret, now in her eighties, makes her home in Sonoma County, near San Francisco. She is still painting, her subjects still have big eyes, but are no longer sad. Now there is happiness.

Big Eyed Art in the Shop
Big Eyed Art Pinterest Board

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