Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1927, Keane enrolled in art classes at the age of 10. After attending the Traphagen School of Fashion, an art and design school in New York City, she developed her signature style — melancholic renderings of cartoonish women, children and animals, often referred to as big-eyed “waifs.”
“Boy and Poodle” (1982) by Margaret Keane. Credit: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA
In 1955, she married real estate agent Walter Keane, who offered to sell her paintings while surreptitiously passing them off as his own. It was only upon accompanying him to the San Francisco nightclub The Hungry i, where he often peddled her work, that she discovered the deception.
Keane ultimately agreed to continue the arrangement, and her husband enjoyed significant commercial success. The paintings sold widely in the 1960s — not only as canvases and prints, but on plates, postcards and mugs.
The works divided the art world. But while some critics dismissed them as cliché and overly kitsch, they were also praised by the likes of Andy Warhol. “I think what Keane has done is terrific,” the Pop artist once told Life magazine, in a quote that opened Burton’s movie. “If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
Walter and Margaret Keane in 1960. Credit: Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
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 famously arranged a “paint-off” in San Francisco’s Union Square, though 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 libel in a Honolulu court, after he continued to claim credit. The judge challenged both Keane and her ex-husband to paint a large-eyed child, though the latter declined, citing a shoulder injury. She completed a painting for the court in under an hour.
The jury was convinced, and Keane was awarded $4 million, though that sum was later overturned. 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 enjoyed renewed interest with the 2014 release of Burton’s “Big Eyes,” in which the artist was played by Amy Adams. On Wednesday, the movie’s co-writer, Larry Karaszewski, paid tribute to Keane on Twitter, saying that he was “grateful” to have spent “so much time getting to know her beautiful spirit.”
Keane’s “Lisa’s Son” (1986). Credit: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA
“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.”
“We will miss her love, creative ingenius (sic) and passion to continue to create new works up until her passing,” the statement read.
Top image: Margaret Keane pictured at the New York premiere of ‘Big Eyes’ in 2014.