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Margaret D. H. Keane Artist Biography and Art Gallery Collection
Margaret D. H. Keane (born Peggy Doris Hawkins, September 15, 1927) is an American artist known for her paintings of subjects with big eyes. She mainly paints women, children, or animals in oil or mixed media. The work achieved commercial success through inexpensive reproductions on prints, plates, and cups. The artwork was originally attributed to Margaret Keane's husband, Walter Keane. After their divorce in the 1960's, Margaret soon claimed credit, which was established after a court "paint-off" in Hawaii. A resurgence of interest in Margaret Keane's work followed the release of Tim Burton's 2014 biopic Big Eyes. She maintains a gallery in San Francisco which boasts "the largest collection of Margaret Keane's art in the entire world. In light of the great gulf between her work's popularity and its critical lampooning, she has been called the "Wayne Newton of the art world".
Margaret Keane met Walter some time in the mid-1950's. As Walter Keane told the story when he was at the height of his popularity, he saw her sitting alone at a "well known North Beach bistro and he was attracted by her large eyes. At the time Walter was also married, worked as a real estate salesman and painted on the side. He would later tell reporters, however, that he had given up his "highly successful real estate career" in 1947. Margaret found him "suave, gregarious and charming." The two married in 1955 in Honolulu. Margaret has said that he began selling her characteristic "big eyes" paintings immediately, but unknown to her, claimed it was his own work. The principal venue for his sales was the hungry i, a comedy club in San Francisco. When she discovered his deception, she remained silent. She later explained her behavior: "I was afraid of him because he threatened to have me done in if I said anything." But Margaret even publicly acknowledged him as the artist, while later claiming it was "tortuous" for her. She rationalized the situation on the ground that "at least they were being shown." In 1957 Walter began exhibiting the "big eyes" paintings as his own. In February the work was shown on a wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito. He took nine paintings to New Orleans, which he claims to have sold during Mardi Gras. That summer Walter arranged for a showing at the Washington Square Outdoor Art show in New York City. Displaying his talent for promotion, during that trip he arranged for a showing in August at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and another in a small East Side gallery for the same month. Walter began developing a mythology about himself and to a lesser extent Margaret.
He eventually began promotions of "The Painting Keanes." In the 1960's, Keane became one of the most popular and commercially successful artists of the time. Andy Warhol said "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." On the other hand, when one of the exhibitors at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing, Queens, announced that it would exhibit Keane's Tomorrow Forever, a painting of a countless number of doe-eyed waifs from the horizon to the foreground where they lined up on a staircase, the New York Times's art critic expressed outrage, calling it "The most grotesque announcement yet from the New York World's Fair." He described Keane as a painter celebrated "for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his 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." Robert Moses, stung by the resulting criticism, prevented the painting from being displayed at the Fair.
During all this time Margaret Keane's artwork was sold under the name of her husband, Walter Keane, who claimed credit for her paintings. At the height of the artworks' popularity, she was painting non-stop for 16 hours a day. In 1970, Keane announced on a radio broadcast she was the real creator of the paintings that had been attributed to her ex-husband Walter Keane. After Keane revealed the truth, a "paint-out" between Margaret and Walter was staged in San Francisco's Union Square, arranged by Bill Flang, a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner and attended by the media and Margaret. Walter did not show up. In 1986, she sued both Walter and USA Today in federal court for an article claiming Walter was the real artist. At the trial, the judge famously ordered both Margaret and Walter to each create a big-eyed painting in the courtroom, to determine who was telling the truth. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder, whereas Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes. After a three-week trial, the jury awarded her $4 million in damages. After the verdict Keane said "I really feel that justice has triumphed. It's been worth it, even if I don't see any of that four million dollars." A federal appeals court upheld the verdict of defamation in 1990, but overturned the $4 million damage award. Keane says she doesn't care about the money and just wanted to establish the fact that she had done the paintings.
The artworks Margaret Keane created while living in the shadow of her husband tended to depict sad-looking children in dark settings. After she left Walter, moved to Hawaii and, after years of following astrology, palmistry, handwriting analysis and transcendental meditation became a Jehovah's Witness, her work took on a happier, brighter style. "The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul," Keane explains. Many galleries now advertise her artworks as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness." She described her subjects thus: "These are the paintings of children in paradise. They are what I think the world is going to look like when God's will is done. Hollywood actors Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood and Jerry Lewis commissioned Keane to paint their portraits.
In the 1990's, Tim Burton, a Margaret Keane art collector and director of the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes about the life of Margaret Keane, commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his then girlfriend Lisa Marie. Keane's art was bought and presented to the United Nations Children's Fund in 1961 by the Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation. Margaret Keane's big eyes paintings have influenced toy designs, Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes dolls, and the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.
Margaret Keane's paintings are recognizable by the over sized, doe-like eyes of her subjects. She says she was always interested in the eyes and used to draw them in her school books. She began painting her signature "Keane eyes" when she started painting portraits of children. "Children do have big eyes. When I'm doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger," Keane said. She focused on the eyes, as they show the inner person more. She attributes Amedeo Modigliani's work as a major influence on the way she has painted women since 1959. Other artists who influenced her in use of color, dimension and composition include Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and Picasso. Despite her claims to fine art, she has never been a critical success; instead she remained "known for her sticky-sweet paintings of doe-eyed waifs that became the middlebrow rage in the late 1950's and 1960's, then kitschy collectibles of high-ironic style decades later.