Margaret Keane

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Margaret Keane
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins
(1927-09-15) September 15, 1927 (age 89)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Residence Napa County, California
Other names Peggy Ulbrich
MDH Keane
Margaret McGuire
Occupation Artist
Spouse(s) Frank Richard Ulbrich (m. 1948–55)
Walter Keane (m. 1955–65)
Daniel Francis McGuire (m. 1970)
Children 1

Margaret D. H. Keane (born Peggy Doris Hawkins, September 15, 1927)[1] is an American artist. Creator of the "big-eyed waifs", Keane is famous for drawing paintings with big eyes, and mainly paints women, children and animals in oil or mixed media. While the work achieved commercial success through inexpensive reproductions on prints, plates and cups, it has been critically dismissed as kitsch. One reviewer pointed to its ubiquity in discount stores: "They hung in Woolworth's, next to the velvet Elvi, or maybe it was Walgreen's, by the clowns."[2] The work was originally attributed to Keane's husband, Walter Keane. After their divorce in the 1960s, Margaret soon claimed credit, which was established after an in-court "paint-off" in Hawaii.[2] A resurgence of interest followed a bio-pic by Tim Burton. She maintains a gallery in San Francisco which boasts "the largest collection of Margaret Keane's art in the entire world."[3] 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."[4]

Early life[edit]

Keane was born in Nashville, Tennessee. Keane started drawing as a child and began taking art lessons at age 10.[5] As an adult she studied at Watkins Art Institute in Nashville and Traphagen School Of Design in New York City.[6] Keane painted her first oil painting of two little girls, one crying and one laughing, when she was 10 years old and gave the drawing to her grandmother. Keane still has the painting today.[7] She was well known at the local church for her sketches of angels with big eyes and floppy wings.

Career and style[edit]

Keane's paintings are recognizable by the oversized, doe-like eyes of her subjects.[8] Keane 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. Keane focused on the eyes, as they show the inner person more.[7][9] Keane 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.[6] 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 1950s and 1960s, then kitschy collectibles of high-ironic style decades later."[10]

In the 1960s, 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."[11] 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 "[t]he 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."[12] Robert Moses, stung by the resulting criticism, prevented the painting from being displayed at the Fair.

During this time her artwork was sold under the name of her husband, Walter Keane, who claimed credit for her paintings.[13] At the height of the artworks' popularity, she was painting non-stop for 16 hours a day.[7]

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.[5][14] 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."[8][11][15] 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.[16]

The artworks 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,[4] 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.[17] Many galleries now advertise her artworks as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness". She described her subects 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."[4]

Hollywood actors Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood and Jerry Lewis commissioned Keane to paint their portraits.[5][18][19] In the 1990s, Tim Burton, a 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.[20] Keane was also commissioned to paint the children of President John F. Kennedy, John and Caroline Kennedy.[citation needed] Keane's art is collected by museums all around the world.[citation needed] Her painting "Our Children" is in the United Nations permanent collection of art.[citation needed] It was bought and presented to the United Nations Children's Fund in 1961 by the Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation.[21] Keane's big eyes paintings have influenced toy designs, Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes dolls, and the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.[6]

Personal life[edit]

Keane's first husband was Frank Richard Ulbrich; they had a daughter together. She married Walter Keane in 1955. In 1964, she left Walter and divorced him in 1965, and relocated from San Francisco to Hawaii. In Hawaii Keane met Honolulu sports writer Dan McGuire and married him in 1970.[22] She credits McGuire for helping her to become less timid and afraid after her divorce from Walter.[14][23] Keane lived in Hawaii for over 25 years, before returning to California in 1991. She resides in Napa County, California.[9]

Media portrayal[edit]

  • In 1973, Woody Allen's comedy Sleeper features people of the future, who consider Keane to be one of the greatest artists in history.
  • In 1998, cartoon series The Powerpuff Girls by animator Craig McCracken debuts, featuring leads based on Keane's "waifs" and a character named "Ms. Keane".[24]
  • In 1999, Matthew Sweet's album In Reverse features one of Keane's oil paintings on its cover.[25]
  • In the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes, Margaret Keane and her ex-husband Walter are the main focus of the film. Margaret was portrayed by Amy Adams and Walter was played by Christoph Waltz.[26] The film was directed by Tim Burton.[20] Margaret Keane makes an appearance in the film, as an elderly lady sitting on a park bench, in the scene where Adams' and Waltz's characters are outside the Palace of Fine Arts. Margaret Keane turned down various offers for the film rights. After meetings with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, she agreed to the film rights and approved the screenplays written by Alexander and Karaszewski. The film took 11 years from development to completion.[27]


  1. ^ "Margaret Keane Biography". Retrieved September 20, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Dubin, Zan (July 2, 2000). "The Eyes of Margaret Keane". Los Angeles Times. p. 2. Retrieved April 19, 2017 – via ProQuest. (Subscription required (help)). 
  3. ^ "About Keane Eyes Gallery". Keane Eyes Gallery. n.d. Retrieved April 19, 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c Bishop, Katherine (February 27, 1992). "For Waifs of Art, The Last Laugh". New York Times. p. C1, at C10. Retrieved April 19, 2017 – via ProQuest. (Subscription required (help)). 
  5. ^ a b c "MARGARET KEANE 1972 In Hawaii - The Mike Douglas Show". YouTube. 
  6. ^ a b c "Margaret Keane, Painter Behind Tim Burton's 'Big Eyes' KQED Arts". YouTube. 
  7. ^ a b "Tim Burton 'Big Eyes' Movie Tells The Story Of Art Couple Margaret and Walter Keane...". Huffington Post. April 4, 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-09. 
  8. ^ a b Jesse Hamlin (December 14, 2014). "Artist Margaret Keane hasn't lost wide-eyed enthusiasm for work". SF Chronicle. 
  9. ^ Hornaday, Ann (December 26, 2014). "The Mysterious Margaret Keane". The Washiington Post. p. EZ 26. Retrieved April 19, 2017 – via ProQuest. (Subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ a b Spindler, Amy M (May 23, 1999). "Style; An Eye for an Eye". The New York Times. 
  11. ^ Canaday, John (February 21, 1964). "Art: World's Fair Pavilion Selects Theme Painting: Walter Keane Work in Education Hall Tomorrow Forever' Aims to Please". New York Times. p. 59. 
  12. ^ Ryzik, Melen (December 18, 2014). "The Artist Margaret Keane, Vindicated in Tim Burton's Film". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ a b "The lady behind those Keane-eyed kids". Life Magazine. November 20, 1970. Vol. 69, No. 21 - p. 56. Retrieved December 9, 2010. 
  14. ^ Kunen, James S. (23 June 1986). "Margaret Keane's Artful Case Proves That She—and Not Her Ex-Husband—made Waifs". People. 
  15. ^ "Keane left isles for California in 91". Honolulu Star Bulletin. August 6, 1997. 
  16. ^ "My Life as a Famous Artist", Awake!, July 8, 1975
  17. ^ "Joan Crawford Awards, Art, and Other Personal Items". The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  18. ^ Bas, Borja (July 19, 2013). "El infierno de la artista que iluminó a Tim Burton" [The Artist Who Brightened Tim Burton Lived Through Hell]. El País. Retrieved 2015-03-17. 
  19. ^ a b “The big-eyed children: the extraordinary story of an epic art fraud”, “The Guardian," October 26, 2014, Retrieved 2014-10-28.
  20. ^ Margaret Keane; Walter Stanley Keane; Richard Nolan (1962). Margaret and Walter Keane. Tomorrow's masters series. Prescolite. p. 12. 
  21. ^ "Big Eyes and All: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Keane", page 27
  22. ^ "MARGARET KEANE - 1972 - ShirleyTemple & Mike Douglas - BIG EYES". YouTube. 
  23. ^ "The Critical eye". 
  24. ^ Stratton, Jeff (February 2, 2000). "Matthew Sweet". 
  25. ^ "Harvey Weinstein Praises 'Big Eyes' Screenwriters-Producers at Film's Premiere". Variety. 
  26. ^ "Amy Adams and Margaret Keane tell Big Eyes Movie Story". YouTube. 

External links[edit]