Abirpothi

India’s only daily art newspaper

The creator of “big eyes”, who struggled to claim her artistic identity, bids farewell

Margaret Keane was an American artist whose paintings are recognizable by the oversized, doe-like eyes of her subjects, most of whom are children. Keane focused on the eyes, as they show the inner person more. She mainly painted women, children, or animals in oil or mixed media. Keane died on June 26, 2022, at the age of 94. Her work achieved commercial success through inexpensive reproductions on prints, plates, and cups. In an audio interview with the BBC, coinciding with the 2014 release of Keane’s biopic directed by Tim Burton, she opened once again about the nature of coercion from her husband, Walter Keane, that led to years of silence on her part regarding the true face behind the paintings: For decades, Walter passed off these pictures as his own.

\"\"

Margaret made a public claim about being the true painter of the works soon after their divorce in the 1970s. Though a “paint-off” was organized to establish who the real artist was, Walter never showed up. Later, such a “paint-off” was again ordered by a court in Hawaii. Here, Walter claimed a strained shoulder, “though he came to the court with a suitcase” Margaret had quipped in the BBC interview, and declined to paint. Margaret successfully completed the painting in the signature “big eyes” style within an hour in court and the case went in her favour. The jury awarded her $4 million in settlement, but she never saw any of it. “Walter declared bankruptcy, took all my paintings that he could, and left for Canada,” she said in the BBC interview.

\"\"

Keane started drawing as a child, and at age 10 she took classes at the Watkins Institute in Nashville. At age 18 she attended the Traphagen School of Design in New York City for a year. She began work painting clothing and baby cribs in the 1950s. Margaret married Walter in 1955 in Honolulu and finally began a career painting portraits. She said that he began selling her paintings immediately – but under his own name. For the longest of time, Margaret did not have a clue about this. Later, she got to know at Hungry i, a comedy club in San Francisco. However, even after getting to know the truth, she seemed to have played along for several reasons including fear of personal safety, inability to walk out of the marriage, and lack of confidence. In fact, Margaret blames herself harshly and at several points in the BBC talk for not having the courage to do what was needed. “I guess I did what I thought was the best for me at the time,” she says. In the meantime, the popularity of the work was surging. In February 1957, the work was shown on a wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito. Walter also took nine paintings to New Orleans, which he claimed to have sold during Mardi Gras. The summer was to see the paintings being exhibited at Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and another in a small East Side gallery for the same month.

 

\"\"

In the 1960s, Keane became one of the most popular and commercially successful artists of the time. Andy Warhol has said about her, \”I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn\’t like it.\” However, the fact remains that she never got critical acclaim. In fact, a large work she had created for participation in a major show at an art fair in New York had many children with big eyes, some crying, and some smiling. The style and treatment of the work was ripped off by art critic John Canaday. He described Keane as a painter celebrated \”for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his (assuming Walter’s) product has become synonymous among critics definition of tasteless hack work. [The painting] contains about 100 children and hence is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.\” This criticism cost the Keanes dearly and their work was denied exhibition at the event.

\"\"

Nevertheless, Margaret’s popularity after she claimed her art continued to soar. Hollywood actors commissioned Keane to paint their portraits. Her art was bought and presented to the United Nations Children\’s Fund in 1961 by the Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation. Keane\’s big eyes paintings have influenced toy designs, Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes dolls, and the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls. In 2018, Keane received a lifetime achievement award at the LA Art Show.