Eyes, lies, and the journey of Margaret Keane

During the 1960s, after nearly 30 years of painting and art education, artist Margaret Keane struck a chord with art buyers. Her works were not appreciated by the cultural elite, but nevertheless made plenty of money. Her soulful portraits, with their deep and jarringly large eyes, were referred to as “big-eyed waifs.” While this would give many artists great joy, for Keane, it was the beginning of life as a prisoner. Her husband, Walter, seeing a golden opportunity with big eyes of his own, was selling the paintings with his name, while locking Margaret up, forcing her to paint under his demands.

Margaret, who was born in 1927 in Tennessee, met Walter Keane at an outdoor art market in San Francisco in the mid-1950s. Both had been married previously, both had a child. Walter worked in real estate but had a great interest in art, having studied in Paris. Margaret encouraged this passion, and after the couple was married, he began working full-time in the art business.

The two seemed like a natural pair. She painted, while he sold her work at a San Francisco beatnik club known as The Hungry i. Walter, however, was not giving his wife artistic credit. The paintings were labeled as being by “Keane.”

While accompanying her husband to a sale at the club, Margaret realized what was happening. After she confronted him, Walter convinced his wife to go along with the charade. He tried to learn to paint like her, but never could.

The paintings became successful after Walter got into a fight with a woman at The Hungry i. The subsequent trial made the paintings well-known and soon they were in high demand. Walter would charge up to $50,000 per painting for originals and mass production of the artwork began, as well. Though critics panned the work as “kitschy” because of the seeming disconnect between the masculine Walter and the soft, weepy orphans he painted, many people paid good money for “Keane eyes.”

As the popularity grew, millions of dollars were being made, and Walter’s self-promotion increased. He once boasted that “Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.” But his grip on Margaret increased, as well.

From a New York Times interview with Keane:

“I’d have to lock the door of the paint room,” she says. “He wouldn’t allow anyone in. I was like a prisoner.”

The money and joy were flowing for Walter, but Margaret’s misery could not be contained. Her paintings became sadder, tears featured more regularly. From the NYT:

“Gradually it dawned on me that I was painting my own inner emotions. Those children were asking: ‘Why are we here? What is life all about? Why is there sadness and injustice?’ All those deep questions. Those children were sad because they didn’t have the answers. They were searching.”

All that searching led Margaret to leave Walter in 1965. Walter was not only a plagiarist, but also emotionally abusive, isolating Margaret with her work. While out selling art and receiving adoration, he drank heavily and womanized. After threatening Margaret’s and her daughter’s life, she obtained a legal separation.

A new decade brought new courage for Margaret. She credits her faith as a Jehovah’s Witness and her new husband for much of this. During a radio interview in 1970, she shocked the world by confessing to the ruse and taking credit for the work.

The two exes battled in the public forum until Margaret sued Walter and the USA Today for defamation in 1985 after the newspaper published an article in which Walter called her a liar. As part of the ensuing trial, a paint-off was staged. Before a jury, Walter and Margaret were asked to paint in the famous “big-eyed” or “Keane eyes” style. Walter withdrew due to a shoulder injury. Margaret completed her portrait in 53 minutes and was awarded $4 million in damages.

Unfortunately for Margaret, Walter had blown all of the money he made from her work and she never saw the money.

Adam Parfrey co-wrote a book on the Keanes in 2014 after penning an article on the scandal in the 1990s. He spoke to the L.A. Times shortly thereafter and had some interesting recollections of the time he spent with Walter before his penniless and obscure death in 2000.

“It was absurd. He kept comparing himself to Michelangelo. He doubled down on the whole lie.”

Parfrey stated that, when speaking of Margaret, Walter became bitter and vicious. He called her a liar and claimed she had had sex with a car hop on their wedding day. He even repeatedly asked questions of Parfrey about his sex life and offered suggestions to improve it.

Parfrey sums up the interaction: “He was really crazy.”

As for Margaret, she is still painting at the age of 88 in California. She told the L.A. Times that she no longer paints the weepy orphans that she did 50 years ago, in part because she herself is much happier.

“Now, I try to paint happy children and animals playing together in paradise scenes, like here in L.A., looking out the window. Beautiful.”

She has transitioned from hopeless to hopeful. From a New York Times interview:

“A lot of art today doesn’t convey much hope, and I hope mine does,” she says. “I try to paint what I think the future holds and my innermost feelings about God’s promise for the future.”

  1. “Margaret Keane.” Bio.com. Ed. Biography.com Editors. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2016.
  2. Gelt, Jessica. “A “real” Portrait of “Big Eyes” Artist Margaret Keane.” Los Angeles Times 21 Dec. 2014: n. pag. Print.
  3. Spindler, Amy. “An Eye for an Eye.” The New York Times 23 May 1999: n. pag. Print.
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