For years, it was impossible to miss them – the images of the mournful, sad-eyed children seemingly hanging everywhere from museums to discount stores. Although art critics were unimpressed, Americans rushed to the cash registers to buy the artwork.
But there was a backstory to it all – a nasty divorce, a painted courtroom and a Tim Burton film that told the story of Margaret Keane, the artist who worked in an almost anonymous basement for that her husband attributed to himself the kitsch, very popular paintings that she created.
Credited as the creator of the Big Eyes paintings, Keane continued to paint and sell her works until her death Sunday at her home in Napa, the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco has confirmed. She was 94 years old.
Keane’s first big-eyed paintings appeared in the late 1950s on San Francisco’s North Beach, then a bustling bohemian haven. Although received more as curiosities than serious contemporary art, there was something striking about the images of the children, their eyes filled less with wonder than with panic, if not outright fear, that resonated with the television viewers.
As the paintings sold—eventually in the millions—Keane’s husband, Walter, stepped forward and took credit for the art. A former real estate agent with a big personality and a gift for showmanship, he’s appeared on TV shows, toured galleries from New York to Los Angeles, and dutifully signed every painting with a simple “Keane.” If anyone bothered to ask, they described his wife as a struggling amateur.
Requests for custom big-eye paintings have also poured in from the celebrity world, and portraits have been made from photos of Natalie Wood, Caroline Kennedy, Liberace, Kim Novak and many more. Although the paintings sold for as little as $40 at the time, they often sold for thousands of dollars.
After a protracted and acrimonious divorce, Keane told a reporter in 1970 that her ex-husband had painted none of the wide-eyed wreckage and offered to prove it in a public protest at Union Square in San Francisco. She showed up with her easel and quickly produced a classic big-eyed kid. Walter Keane did not bother to introduce himself, although he continued to take credit for the artwork.
Keane filed a libel suit against her former husband for claiming her work, and her lawyer staged a painting for jurors to watch. In less than an hour, she pounced on a perfectly executed child with evil eyes. Walter Keane, complaining of a sore shoulder, did not raise his brush. She was awarded $4 million in damages, although he died in 2000 before paying the judgment.
Years later, Burton – whose wife knew Keane – told his story in the stranger-than-fiction movie ‘Big Eyes’, starring Amy Adams as Keane and Christoph Waltz as her ex-husband. partner in crime. Keane thanked him by painting a portrait of his wife, with wide eyes.
During a retrospective of her work at the Laguna Art Museum in 2000, she spoke with The Times about the deception and abuse she said she suffered at the hands of her husband.
“I had to close the paint room door to keep the housekeeper, my daughter and anyone else out,” she said of the basement where she painted.
“I was painting my own deepest feelings and searching for answers,” she said. “The eyes were always asking ‘Why, why is there pain? What is the purpose of life?'”