In the midst of the 1950s, the art world in America was captivated by the rise of doe-eyed waifs painted by a Keane. The world that was depicted was whimsical and innocent and entrenched the viewer in the big eyes of the children, women and animals depicted. There was melancholy in these paintings, children with their big sad eyes looking directly at the viewer, some children held big sad-eyed poodles in their arms, some sat in open fields of flowers, and others were dressed as harlequins and ballerinas. However, the beauty of these paintings was shrouded in deceit and betrayal, as these paintings were made by one and sold under the name of another. This was the story of one of the biggest art frauds in the history of the art world. This is the story of Margaret Keane’s ‘Big Eyes’ artworks that were sold by her husband and later he claimed to be of his own.
Margaret Keane, was born in Nashville, Tennessee, USA in 1927, her eardrums were damaged as a child which led her to observe people’s eyes for better communication which significantly played a crucial role in the recurring motifs in her later artworks. She met her second husband, Walter Keane in San Francisco at an art fair and was married in 1955. Margaret was already an established artist when she met Walter, who was a real estate agent and pursued painting as a hobby, soon after their wedding Walter convinced Margaret to sell her paintings and make decent sales. The art scene was intrigued by the ‘Big Eyes’ waif of Margaret and gained momentum and soon enough Walter Keane started taking credit for making these unique artworks. Margaret initially went along with it hoping it would lead to better sales. But with time, these lies were exceedingly uncomfortable and she wanted to take ownership of her work; however, she was threatened by Walter which forced her to move and hold her silence.
Walter Keane gained a lot of traction for his “artworks”, LIFE magazine interviewed him wherein he spewed a story of how he was inspired by the children in Europe post World War 2 to make these doe-eyed paintings that have plucked at the heartstrings of many. In the 1960s, he was one of the most influential contemporary artists of the time with Andy Warhol making comments about his artworks. The artworks were selling for millions of dollars with many lumineers buying the originals. In 1970, Margaret gained the courage to announce her truth, she went on to file a lawsuit against Walter Keane for defamation and fraud. The case went to trial in 1986 where she emerged victorious after the judge had asked both of them to make a ‘Big Eyed’ painting, which she completed in 53 minutes, proving her allegations.
Margaret Keane who passed away at the age of 96 in 2022 lived a happier and brighter life with her daughter (from the first marriage). In an interview with Los Angeles Times, Keane stated that she was painting her own deepest inner feelings when she started using those big eyes as the motifs in her artworks. She said, “The eyes were asking why, why is there suffering? What is the purpose of life?”. However, in the later stages of her life when she did find the answers she was looking for, her artworks reflected that as well. In the same interview with Los Angeles Times, she says “The faces of the children reflect the inner joy and peace that I have, they have big eyes but some of them are even laughing”.
Her paintings were exhibited at renowned galleries and institutions over the years and her life story was made into a movie by an avid Keane painting collector, Tim Burton. Keane’s artworks have influenced many cartoons and continue to touch the hearts of the young and the old. Through her art, Keane has created a powerful visual language that speaks to the universal human search for meaning and purpose.