Born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1927, Keane enrolled in art classes at the age of 10. After attending Traphagen School of Fashion, a school of art and design in New York City, she developed her signature style – melancholy drawings of cartoon women, children and animals, often referred to as the big-eyed “dwarfs”.
“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 transferring them as his own. It was only when she went with him to The Hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, where he often peddled her, that she discovered the deception.
Keane eventually agreed to continue the deal, and her husband enjoyed considerable commercial success. The paintings were widely sold in the 1960s – not only as prints and prints, but also on plates, postcards and mugs.
The works have divided the art world. But while some critics consider them cliché and exaggerated, they have also been praised by the likes of Andy Warhol. “I think what Keane has done is amazing,” the pop artist once told Life magazine, in a quote that opens the film by Burton. “If it’s bad, a lot of people won’t like it.”
Walter and Margaret Keane in 1960. Credit: Bettmann / Bettmann / Bettmann Archive
After his divorce from Walter in 1965, Keane moved from California to Hawaii and began to publicly acknowledge his work. When her ex-husband refused this request, she famously arranged a “painting” in San Francisco’s Union Square, although he declined the challenge.
In 1986, he was again asked to prove that he could reproduce the particular style of the painting – this time in front of a jury. Keane sued him (and USA Today) for defamation in a Honolulu courthouse, after he continued to claim recognition. The judge challenged both Keane and her ex-husband to draw a baby with big eyes, but she later refused, citing a shoulder injury. She completed a painting for the court in less than an hour.
The jury was convinced and Keane was awarded $4 million, though that amount was later overturned. She never received any compensation. “I don’t care about money,” she later said, according to “Citizen Keane,” a book about the scandal. “I just want to confirm the fact that I drew the pictures.”
Keane’s work was rekindled with the 2014 release of Burton’s “Big Eyes,” in which the artist was played by Amy Adams. On Wednesday, the film’s co-writer, Larry Karaszewski, expressed gratitude to Keane on Twitter, saying he was “grateful” for having spent “so much time getting to know her beautiful spirit.” she.”
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 wants the world to know the truth about her life and art.”
“We will miss her love, creative genius (sic) and passion to continue creating new works until her passing,” the statement read.
Top image: Margaret Keane at the ‘Big Eyes’ premiere in New York in 2014.