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Margaret Keane, a painter who was all about the eyes, dies at 94

Her portraits of children with big, sad eyes became an art-world phenomenon in the 1960s. For years, her husband falsely took credit for her work.

Artist Margaret Keane at her home in Napa, Calif., in 2014, the year director Tim Burton released “Big Eyes,” a movie about her life. (Randi Lynn Beach for The Washington Post)
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For a few years in the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s paintings of mournful saucer-eyed figures — tearful waifs, haunted-looking adults, gloomy cats and dogs — seemed to be everywhere. Easily recognizable with their big expressive eyes, her pictures were adapted into posters, plates, figurines and postcards, sold on racks at Woolworth’s while the originals were exhibited at the United Nations and the New York World’s Fair.

Yet even as her work was acquired by stars like Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Liberace and Jerry Lewis, Ms. Keane’s talent remained virtually unknown to everyone but her husband, Walter Keane. A former real estate agent with a genius for promotion, he was more con artist than real artist, a fraudster who falsely took credit for her work.

“The whole thing just snowballed,” Ms. Keane recalled in an interview with the New York Times, “and then it was too late to say it wasn’t him who painted them. I’ll always regret that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my rights.”

After years of silence, Ms. Keane did stand up, divorcing her husband and telling journalists in 1970 that she was the one who had made all those paintings and drawings signed “KEANE.” She was later vindicated during a courtroom paint-off, when — after suing her ex-husband for libel — she made one of her signature sad-eyed waif pictures for a jury, executing the painting in under an hour. Her former husband, citing a shoulder injury, declined to put brush to canvas.

Ms. Keane was 94 when she died June 26 at her home in Napa, Calif., where she had continued to draw and paint until her death. The cause was a heart ailment, said her daughter, Jane Swigert.

While Ms. Keane’s works fetched large sums on the art market, they polarized viewers, many of whom found them frightening and eerie, too intense to hang on the wall. “I think a lot of people were afraid to look at them and still are,” she told Los Angeles Magazine in 2018. “They say they love them, but they can’t live with them.”

Art critics delighted in savaging her work, generally deeming it kitschy and oversentimental. Reviewing one of her more ambitious pieces in 1964, a painting called “Tomorrow Forever” that showed dozens of wide-eyed children in a line that stretched to the horizon, John Canaday of the Times called her paintings “the very definition of tasteless hack work.”

Yet Ms. Keane’s admirers were legion — and loud. Art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway told Life magazine that Ms. Keane’s work was “in heroic bad taste” (“It’s incredibly vulgar, it’s weird, but it’s still gorgeous,” he explained), while Andy Warhol declared that “if it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Another supporter, Joan Crawford, suggested she wanted to fill her home with Keane paintings: “I had a fountain designed just to go with one.”

Ms. Keane’s work was credited with influencing pop surrealists such as Mab Graves and Mark Ryden, and with shaping the big-eyed look of the animated Cartoon Network series “The Powerpuff Girls,” which featured a schoolteacher character named after Ms. Keane. Director Tim Burton, who collected her paintings, later introduced her art to younger generations with his 2014 movie, “Big Eyes,” which starred Amy Adams as Ms. Keane and Christoph Waltz as her husband.

At 87, ‘Big Eyes’ artist Margaret Keane gets her Hollywood break

In part, the look of those “big eyes” was informed by a mastoid operation that permanently damaged Ms. Keane’s hearing when she was 2. To understand what people were saying, she began carefully watching their faces, studying their eyes while holding conversation. She said she later realized her subject matter was also a reflection of her own tumultuous personal life, which included a spiritual journey that led her to dabble in astrology and Transcendental Meditation before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know why I did them,” she told the Times in 1992, describing her paintings. “They all have these large eyes. I was painting my own inner feelings. I was very sad and very confused about why there was so much sadness in the world and why God permitted wickedness.”

Ms. Keane had painted large-eyed figures for years before meeting and marrying Walter Keane in 1955, while living in the bohemian North Beach section of San Francisco. “He was just oozing with charm,” she recalled, and for a while, they seemed to make a good team: While she painted at home, he promoted and sold her work, mainly while hanging out at the Hungry I nightclub.

Two years into the relationship, she joined him at the club and discovered he had started taking credit for her paintings. She was tipped off, she told the Guardian, “when somebody walked over to me and said, ‘Do you paint too?’ ”

Her husband later tried to offer an explanation. “He said, ‘We need the money. People are more likely to buy a painting if they think they’re talking to the artist. People don’t want to think I can’t paint and need to have my wife paint. People already think I painted the big eyes and if I suddenly say it was you, it’ll be confusing and people will start suing us.’ ”

At Walter Keane’s suggestion, Ms. Keane tried to teach him how to paint the big-eyed waifs. He was unable to do it and blamed her for being a bad teacher. “Finally I went along with it,” she recalled. “And it was just tearing me apart.”

In interviews and appearances on programs like “The Tonight Show,” her husband claimed that he had started painting big-eyed waifs after visiting Berlin in 1946, when he encountered starving children fighting for scraps of food. He likened himself to Michelangelo, El Greco and Rembrandt, and with the proceeds from Ms. Keane’s artwork, he bought a gated home with a swimming pool and servants.

While her husband cavorted with Maurice Chevalier and members of the Beach Boys, Ms. Keane painted 16 hours a day in a locked room. She said her husband effectively kept her prisoner, preventing her from making friends and threatening to have her “knocked off” if she told anyone that she was the artist behind the eyes.

Ms. Keane eventually bought a plane ticket to Hawaii and divorced her husband after a decade of marriage. She kept her secret for another five years before deciding she had had enough. “Give us both paint and brush and canvas and turn us loose in Union Square at high noon,” she told United Press International, “and we’ll see who can paint eyes.”

Her ex-husband didn’t take her up on that offer. But after he continued to insist he had originated the big-eye style, suggesting to USA Today that Ms. Keane was taking credit for the pictures simply because she thought he was dead, Ms. Keane sued him for libel, leading to the 1986 paint-off at a federal court in Honolulu.

After painting a small big-eyed boy in 53 minutes — “the fastest I ever painted in my life” — Ms. Keane was awarded a $4 million judgment. The verdict was upheld on appeal, although the amount was deemed excessive. Ms. Keane didn’t seem to care.

“I didn’t want money anyway,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I just wanted legal victory.”

The older of two children, she was born Margaret Doris Hawkins in Nashville on Sept. 6, 1927. Her father was an insurance agent, and her mother was a schoolteacher. In a 1975 article for Awake, a Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine, she described herself as “a sickly child, often alone and very shy.”

In her solitude, she turned to drawing and at age 10 enrolled at the Watkins art school, now part of Belmont University in Nashville. She later studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City, where she lived with her first husband, Frank Ulbrich. Together, they ran a small business selling hand-printed neckties. The marriage ended in divorce.

In 1966, Ms. Keane married Dan McGuire, a sports columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser whom she credited with helping to rebuild her life after her divorce from Keane. Her husband died in 1983. Walter Keane died in 2000.

In addition to her daughter, Swigert, survivors include five stepchildren from her third marriage, Mary Ann Russo and Danny, Maureen, Brian and Colleen McGuire; and eight step-grandchildren.

Ms. Keane moved back to the San Francisco area in 1991, and in 2018, she was awarded a lifetime achievement honor at Littletopia, a section of the L.A. Art Show devoted to lowbrow and pop art. By then, her artwork had taken on a happier, more joyful tone, which she traced to her being baptized a Jehovah’s Witness in 1972.

“The faces of the children reflect the inner joy and peace I have,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “They still have big eyes, but some of them are even laughing.”

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