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Margaret Keane, painter of sad-eyed waifs, dies at 94

  • INVISION / AP / 2014
                                Margaret Keane attends the “Big Eyes” premiere after party at Kappo Masa in New York.

    INVISION / AP / 2014

    Margaret Keane attends the “Big Eyes” premiere after party at Kappo Masa in New York.

Margaret Keane, the artist whose doleful, saucer-eyed waifs earned millions in an international kitsch craze a half-century ago, and who inspired an epic art fraud by a husband whose claims to have executed her work were demolished in a “paint-off” in court, died Sunday at her home in Napa, California. She was 94.

Her daughter, Jane Swigert, said the cause was heart failure.

To generations of Americans with even a passing acquaintance with contemporary art, the Keane name raised images of sad children trapped in dystopian worlds of deprivation and misery. They were everywhere — stacked at sidewalk art shows, found in discount stores alongside velvet Elvis and clown pictures, staring out from souvenir stands — the eyes following you like a conscience.

Keane, a reticent woman, had a talent that appealed to the masses but not to art lovers or critics. Her work was in museums, galleries and millions of homes. Her surname was revered by fans — but cut to a punch line by satirists. (In Woody Allen’s 1973 science fiction spoof “Sleeper,” the smart set in the year 2173 uses the single word “Keane” to refer to great art.)

The extraordinary story of Keane, who became a Jehovah’s Witness and in recent years continued to paint and sell her work at auctions and at her Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco, has been retold in books, magazines and on the internet in a resurgence of interest sparked by the Tim Burton film “Big Eyes,” released in 2014, with Amy Adams as Keane and Christoph Waltz as her husband.

From childhood, when a mastoid operation resulted in permanent eardrum damage and hearing loss, she had been fascinated with eyes, watching for cues to amplify what was being said. She began drawing at 10, often sketching angels with big eyes and floppy wings. Her subjects grew to include adults and cuddly animals, but most were children, and all had large, dark eyes.

Her career might have come to nothing had it not been for her second husband, Walter Keane, a charming rogue and an aggressive former real estate salesman who persuaded her to lock herself in her basement studio to paint in peace, while he began a remarkable campaign to promote her work as his own — a scheme that reaped fame and fortune for more than a decade in the 1950s and ’60s.

Starting with local newspaper and television interviews, Walter Keane’s portrayal of himself as the great artist and his wife as a dabbling amateur eventually won national attention. Despite the scorn of critics, paintings of ragamuffins with giant staring eyes, some holding a kitten or puppy, mostly signed just “Keane,” appeared in cocktail lounges and suburban homes across America.

In 1961, Walter Keane’s donation of a canvas to the United Nations Children’s Fund, featuring a panorama of sad, big-eyed children of the world wearing native costumes, landed him on “The Tonight Show.” As Jack Paar, the show’s host, gushed over what he said was the greatest painting he had ever seen, Walter Keane offered perspective, stage-whispering modestly, “There’s Rembrandt, Vermeer and Degas.”

Walter Keane opened galleries in San Francisco and New York. Prices soared. News photos showed him hanging out with Hollywood stars and pop singers. Portraits done from photos were commissioned by Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Jerry Lewis, Liberace and Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Keane oils of John-John and Caroline Kennedy were in the White House.

Walter Keane’s business expanded exponentially; prints, posters, postcards, coffee mugs and plates were marketed in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia and available by mail order from catalogs. Film directors used Keane images to reflect contemporary American life.

Everyone was taken in, while Margaret Keane labored in her studio up to 16 hours a day.

During the 1964 New York World’s Fair, “Tomorrow Forever,” a painting submitted by Walter Keane depicting a staircase to the stars with hundreds of big-eyed waifs stretching to the vanishing point, was chosen as the theme for the Pavilion of Education. But the selection was withdrawn on grounds of “bad taste and low standards” days after being pilloried in The New York Times.

“Mr. Keane is the painter who enjoys international celebration for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous with the very definition of tasteless hack work,” Times art critic John Canaday wrote.

Such rebukes had no effect on the popularity of Keane art. In 1964, Keane prints alone grossed $2 million. In 1965, a Life magazine article, “The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes,” likened it to Howard Johnson’s ubiquitous restaurants. Keane works hung at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow; in museums in Spain, Belgium, Japan and Mexico; and in many private collections.

“There’s just no place we’re not,” Walter Keane told the magazine. Photographs depicted the Keanes in their studio, working at adjoining easels and surrounded by stacks of big-eye paintings.

Preoccupied with spiritualism and the occult as well as with her painting, Margaret Keane said nothing publicly even after discovering what her husband was up to, remaining passively complicit in the fraud for a decade. She even sat through press interviews, nodding approvingly while he told of his own artistic struggles and virtuosities.

“The whole thing just snowballed, and it was too late to say it wasn’t him who painted them,” she told the Times years later. “I’ll always regret that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my rights.”

After years of what she characterized as abusive treatment, Margaret Keane in 1965 won an uncontested court-ordered separation from her husband. It followed a secret business agreement under which Walter Keane was to promote and sell her paintings and she was to receive a share of the profits.

Accompanied by her daughter from a previous marriage, she moved to Hawaii, where she obtained a divorce. She also married for the third time, to Dan McGuire, a columnist for The Honolulu Advertiser, who she said had helped her regain her self-confidence after it had been eroded over the years.

In 1970, on a trip to San Francisco, Margaret Keane told a reporter that her former husband had painted none of the big-eyed waifs, and offered to prove it with a demonstration of their respective painting abilities in Union Square. The media splash drew crowds. Margaret Keane arrived with paints and easel. But Walter Keane did not show up, and he continued to play the part of the successful artist.

In 1986, Margaret Keane raised another dramatic “paint-off” challenge — this time in a Honolulu court, where she had brought a defamation suit against Walter Keane for falsely claiming that he had painted her work. Her lawyers argued that a painting demonstration was the only way to settle the case. A judge agreed.

In less than an hour, Margaret Keane executed a big-eyed urchin. Walter Keane, who represented himself in the case, said he had a sore shoulder and could not lift his arm to paint.

Explaining why she had remained silent for so long, Margaret Keane testified that her husband had repeatedly threatened her life and that of her daughter to secure her silence and preserve his secret. Her daughter corroborated her testimony. Margaret Keane won the case and damages of $4 million, although they were later vacated after Walter Keane declared bankruptcy.

Broke, his reputation in tatters, Walter Keane continued until his death in 2000 to insist that he had painted all the waif pictures. But Margaret Keane was just as adamant in denying it.

“I was in this trap, and I was getting in deeper and deeper,” she told the Times. “I didn’t have enough sense to stop it, or courage. And then, I think, lying like that, I think he began to lose touch with reality. I think he actually convinced himself he could paint, maybe.”

Margaret Doris Hawkins was born on Sept. 6, 1927, in Nashville, Tennessee, the older of two children of David Hawkins, an insurance agent, and Jessie (McBurnett) Hawkins. Margaret and her brother, David, attended public schools.

In a 1975 article for the Jehovah’s Witness publication Awake, she described herself as “a sickly child, often alone and very shy,” who developed an early passion for drawing. Her family attended a Methodist church, where she was known for her sketches of angels with big eyes.

At 10, Margaret was enrolled in art classes at the Watkins Institute (later known as the Watkins College of Art, Design and Film). Her first oil painting depicted two small girls, one crying and one laughing. At 18, she attended the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City, an art and design school.

In 1948, she married Frank Ulbrich. They had a daughter, Jane. That marriage ended in divorce, as did her marriage to Walter Keane in 1955. Her 1966 marriage to McGuire ended with his death in 1983. In addition to her daughter, Margaret Keane is survived by five stepchildren from her marriage to McGuire, Danny, Maureen, Brian and Colleen McGuire and Mary Ann Russo; and eight step-grandchildren.

Margaret Keane returned to California in 1992. She established her gallery in San Francisco, bought a home north of the city, and for more than 25 years continued to paint and sell her work. In recent years she had lived with her daughter in the Napa area. After the appearance of Tim Burton’s movie and a book, “Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes” (2014), by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson, Keane’s work enjoyed a resurgence of public interest.

In 2018, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the Los Angeles Art Show, which presented a retrospective of her work. “I was overwhelmed,” Keane told Los Angeles magazine. “I felt it was a real blessing.”

Her paintings, Parfrey and Nelson wrote, “have outlived and outlasted the critics who derided her work” and “earned their own unique place in American culture.”

They added, “Whatever your opinion of Big Eye art, the story behind it has all the ingredients of a page-turning novel — love, fame, celebrity, betrayal, deceit, substance abuse, courtroom drama, and even a religious conversion.”


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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