The painter Margaret Keane, creator of melancholy portraits of big-eyed children, popular in the late 1950s-1960s, has died aged 94.
She became phenomenally successful with fans and collectors, including celebrities like Natalie Wood, Andy Warhol, Joan Crawford, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and even the United Nations.
For many years, Margaret received no recognition for her unique style. At the same time, her controlling husband Walter signed his name on the bottom of each canvas. Walter was a savvy marketer, and soon the Big Eyes prints were mass-produced and sold in hardware stores, gas stations, and Woolworths worldwide.
Walter appeared on talk shows and became a household name, even bragging to TIME magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.”
In 1986, Margaret announced herself as the actual author behind Big Eyes. She sued Walter for the right to sell, sign, and distribute her paintings. The case culminated in a dramatic courtroom paint-off: Margaret painted a big-eyed child in 54 minutes flat; Walter claimed a shoulder injury and refused to pick up the brush. Nevertheless, Margaret was awarded $4 million and was the rightful owner of her works.
Born in 1927 in Nashville, Tennessee, Margaret loved to paint and draw from an early age. She first made her paintings famous in San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1950s. Collected by fans worldwide, at 87 years old, Margaret continues to paint almost daily in Northern California. Margaret is one of the most prolific artists ever.
Though her trademark Art critics generally considered the big Eyes style to be sickeningly sentimental and kitsch, these pieces were created at a poignant and vital historical moment. Empathy for the world’s children may seem commonplace today, but it was uncommon in the 1960s. For example, the United Nations General Assembly had only recently enacted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959. In addition, child abuse, considered a taboo subject, was addressed by the American Medical Association for the first very time in 1962.
When asked about her motivation, Margaret says, “Children have big eyes. So when I’m doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Many years after the works fell from favor, new light was shed on the paintings. The story behind them was one of the most significant art frauds in history – a biopic, ‘Big Eyes’, by Director Tim Burton, was released in 2014 starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. An elderly Margaret, is seen sitting on a park bench, in a cameo appearance in the film.