I knew the style of Margaret Keane before I even knew the artist. This isn’t anything like a boast, but instead shows the influence Keane’s work has had on the art of today. If it were not Tim Burton’s biopic ‘Big Eyes,’ I would have been oblivious to her big-eyed waifs. After seeing the movie, however, I went straight to my laptop to research. Amy Adams held the role as Margaret, and I found it beautiful the way she spoke about “her” art. I wanted to see how Margaret herself spoke about her works. I also wanted to see if the delusional liar she had been forced to slave away for was truly as crazy as the film had depicted him to be. It turns out, with just a few short minutes of reading and some interviewing-watching, that Walter Keane was even more of a con-artist than first realised.
Margaret D.H Keane was born in 1927. Her interest in art grew from a young age. She studied at Watkins Art Institute in Nashville, and Traphagen School of Design, and she was a single mother. Keane was a true believer that the eyes are the windows of the soul. Fascinated with eyes since a girl, drawing them on the margins of her school books, she says that “they just got bigger and bigger.” The children she had painted for so long were clearly so much a part of her. So how did she continue with one of the most famous cases of art fraud? The answer: Walter Keane.
Margaret and Walter’s stories differ on their first meeting. What is clear though, that in the 1950’s San Francisco allure, Margaret became enamoured with Walter’s charm and they married. When Walter sold her paintings, however, he claimed it was his “Keane” name painted onto those works. It wasn’t for some time that Margaret realised this, but when the time did come, she found there was little she could do. Her paintings were selling, quickly becoming pop-culture icons, and she had her daughter to support. Walter set-up his own operation with Margaret as his painting machine. She painted in acrylics, which allowed for the paintings to be done quickly. Walter seized this advantage and had her paint up to 16 hours a day. Whenever he was out, he would call every hour just to make sure she was still working in secret. Walter himself loved the attention and the fame. Famous actors and actresses posed and bought Keane works, critics and psychiatrists alike analysed the works, millions of prints were made so people could say that they had a big-eyed child in their own home.
Eventually Margaret could no longer hide the truth any longer. She revealed the truth in an interview and took Walter Keane to court to prove it. During a three-week trial, the judge ordered them to sit and paint right there. Now, my favourite part of this story is this paint-off. While Margaret painted a waif in just an hour - faster than she had ever completed one before - Walter claimed a sore shoulder was preventing him from even lifting the brush. Margaret Keane was awarded $4 million in compensation. Unfortunately she would never see a dime of that money, but her name had been cleared.
Whatever your opinion on Keane’s work, you can clearly see how her style has continued to influence art today. Impacting to create Japanese Anime, children’s cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls, and even toys such as Susie Sad Eyes dolls, Margaret Keane’s big-eyed waifs are a cultural icon.
Above: Blossom in the Springtime (2015), and My Path Towards Spring (2015), by Margaret Keane (1927- ).