During the 1960s, American artist Margaret Keane was one of the most popular painters in the country, only no one knew it was her work that was so acclaimed. As depicted by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in the Tim Burton film, Big Eyes, Margaret's husband, Walter Keane, took full credit for her work and marketed her child waif paintings with the famously oversized eyes as inspired by his time in post-WWII Europe. He may not have been able to create art himself, but he knew how to sell it, with galleries in San Francisco and New York, and licensing deals that saw the paintings turned into posters, cards, and other memorabilia.
|Signature Big Eyes Keane portraits|
Margaret was born in Nashville in 1927, and was a lonely child (this sadness inspired her to show emotions in the eyes of her subjects), before moving to suburban California as an adult, and settling in San Francisco in the mid-1950s upon leaving her first husband. Shortly after arriving in the city's artsy North Beach neighborhood, she met real estate salesman and wannabe artist Walter, who swept her off her feet and offered her a sense of stability, providing a home and traditional family life for Margaret and her daughter Jane.
|Margaret and paintings in 'her' style|
The first two years of the marriage were happy ones, but Walter showed his true colors when he started selling both of their art in the beatnik club The Hungry i. As Margaret says, she was at the club one night when "...he was over there, talking, selling paintings, when somebody walked over to me and said: 'Do you paint too?' And I suddenly thought - just horrible shock - 'Is he taking credit for my paintings?'" Because their family needed the money, she allowed the lie, having no idea just how big it would become. Eventually Walter allowed Margaret to show some work in a different style, but he always took full credit for the Big Eyes paintings.
|Margaret and Walter Keane in their home studio with one of the Natalie Wood paintings|
|Natalie Wood with a Margaret Keane on the left, and a 'Walter Keane' on the right - both were painted by Margaret|
Once the paintings started selling, everything quickly snowballed, and the Keanes were able to expand into their own galleries, buy a large house, and were getting significant press and celebrity commissions - including paintings for Natalie Wood, Liberace, and Joan Crawford. Margaret painted everything herself, and spent up to 16 hours a day in her studio, never letting anyone - not even their family - in on the secret she and her husband now shared.
In 1965, LIFE Magazine called the paintings "the most popular art now being produced in the free world." While the art was popular, it wasn't always well regarded - many critics were disdainful of the style and didn't regard Keane's as serious work. A particular painting, done in 1964 for UNICEF to display at the World's Fair in New York, was so maligned that organizers decided to remove it from display before the Fair even began. On top of the criticism, there was tremendous pressure on Margaret to maintain the illusion of her husband the artist, especially since, according to her, Walter threatened her life if she ever betrayed his trust.
|Margaret Keane's Tomorrow Forever for UNICEF|
|Hawaiian Kingdom by Margaret Keane|
It all came crashing down in 1970, five years after Margaret left Walter (who, aside from being a literal con artist, was also a philanderer and heavy drinker), moved to Hawaii, and became a Jehovah's Witness. Inspired by her new faith, she decided to cease creating the Keane paintings for Walter's gallery, and went on a San Francisco radio station to announce the deception, before taking her ex to court for the profits and rights to her work. After a famous paint-off, which Walter declined to participate in, Margaret showed the judge and jury that she was the true artist in the family, and was awarded $4 million. However, she was not to see a dime of the money, and Walter died penniless in 2000, still never having admitted his con.
|Margaret Keane in her San Francisco Gallery|
Margaret remarried during her time in Hawaii, and has since moved back to California. She lives in Sonoma County and has a gallery in San Francisco, Keane Eyes Gallery. She still paints nearly every day.
|Margaret Keane and Amy Adams, as Margaret, on the set of Big Eyes|
All images via Google