THE BIG EYES PAINT OFF
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins in Nashville, Tennessee, her father was David Hawkins and her mother was Jessie McBurnett.
Age just two, her eardrum was damaged permanently during a mastoid operation, and she could never hear properly again. She learned to understand what people were saying by watching their eyes.
She was an exceptionally shy child.
She was always drawing as a little girl and was so talented that aged just 10, she took classes at the Watkins Institute in Nashville, an art and design college.
She completed her first oil painting aged 10, a picture of two little girls, one laughing, one crying. She gave the painting to her grandmother.
At 18, Margaret attended the Traphagen School of Design in New York City and subsequently started her career as an artist. She started by painting baby cribs and clothes but soon moved onto portraits. Her subjects were women, children and pets.
Around the same time, she married Frank Ulbrich and had one daughter, Jane.
In the early 1950s, she was sitting alone in a San Francisco bistro, when real estate salesman (and amateur painter) Walter Keane walked in. Although married, he was immediately attracted to Margaret’s big eyes. She found him, “suave, gregarious and charming.” An affair began.
Later on, Walter claimed he was an exceptionally successful salesman who retired in 1947 to become a full-time painter. He was lying. He was still working up until 1955 and was an average salesman. But, as Margaret said, “He was just oozing charm. He could charm anyone.”
Both Margaret and Walter got divorced and they married in Honolulu in 1955.
It was then that she began her ‘Big Eyes’ paintings, often of children with sad eyes in dark places. She claimed to have been influenced by Pablo Picasso, Gustav Klimt and Vincent Van Gogh.
But Margaret and Walter had different versions of their conversations. He said she said, “I love your paintings. You are the greatest artist that I have ever seen. You are also the most handsome…You are the greatest lover in the world.”
However, she said she warned Walter, “Never touch any of my paintings.”
Walter began selling the paintings, but unbeknown to her, he claimed he had painted them himself. He sold them to the ‘Hungry-I’ beatnik comedy club in San Francisco. Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce played there.
She went with him to an opening night. Her paintings were all over the walls. She suddenly realised he was taking the credit when a friend of his said to her, “Do you paint too?”
She confronted him when they got home. He said they needed the money. So, she accepted it – and soon they moved into a plush house. It had swimming pools and servants. And Walter lived the posh lifestyle. Celebrities such as The Beach Boys, Howard Keel and Maurice Chevalier were regular visitors. There was alcohol and naked girls everywhere. And Margaret saw none of it. She was in the studio in the attic, painting, working 16-hour days.
He was a monster. He would not allow her any friends and she couldn’t leave the house without his permission. When she did go out, he had her followed.
She did try to teach him to paint the big-eyed pictures but he was dreadful.
Nevertheless, she did nothing. “I was afraid of him because he threatened to have me done in if I said anything.” She knew he had friends in the Mafia. She even said in public that the paintings were his.
One of the paintings was on the wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito. Walter then went to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans where he sold another 9 of her paintings. This was followed by an exhibition in Washington Square Park in New York and a showing in the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago.
In 1961 the United Nations Children’s Fund bought some of her paintings.
And all the while he pedalled the myth of the ‘Painting Keanes’. And everybody was fooled. Andy Warhol said of Walter, “I think what Keane has done is terrific.”
Walter claimed he had been inspired by a visit to post-war Berlin in 1946, where he saw children with big eyes scavenging for food on the street – “dirty ragged little victims of the war.” All lies.
For a while in the 1960s, they were the biggest selling painters in the world. Margaret admitted Walter used all his skills as a salesman. She was very quiet and shy and wouldn’t have had the ability to sell them as he did.
In 1964 there was a commission for a painting for the ‘World’s Fair’. It was called ‘Tomorrow Forever’. Margaret’s painting (claimed by Walter) showed a hundred doe-eyed children. It was critically slated. Art critic John Canaday said that because it had a hundred children, it was a hundred times worse than the usual Keane painting. The New York Times called it “tasteless hackwork.” The painting was withdrawn.
The criticism of her work from most art critics, really upset Margaret. “When people said it was just sentimental stuff, it really hurt my feelings. Some people couldn’t stand to look at them. I don’t know why – just a violent reaction.”
And it led to massive arguments at home, and Margaret and Walter divorced in 1965. The final straw was when Walter kicked her dog and threatened to punch her. She told him, “Where I come from, men don’t hit women.” And she walked out.
Walter kept their house and drank their fortune away. Amazingly, for a short while Margaret agreed to keep painting in his name. He also refused to give her any of her artwork back – and he sold the lot.
But when he tried to sully her reputation in the press (by calling her a “sex-starved psychopath who enjoyed sex with several parking-lot attendants”), she decided enough was enough. She said Walter was, “Nuts. I couldn’t believe the hate he had for me.”
“No more lies. From now on, I will only tell the truth.”
And Walter never ‘painted’ another picture
She went to live in Hawaii where she took up astrology and palm reading and continued painting portraits. She painted Joan Crawford, Jerry Lewis, Kim Novak and Natalie Wood. Dean Martin was a big collector of her pictures.
It was only in 1970, during a radio broadcast, that Margaret admitted in public that the drawings were hers. Walter denied this claim. The San Francisco Examiner decided they should have a paint off in Union Square. There was much media attention…but Walter didn’t show up.
In 1986 Margaret sued both Walter and ‘USA Today’, who had written an article saying he was the painter and she was a charlatan. It went to the Honolulu Federal Court.
It was a three-week court case. The judge ordered both of them to paint a big-eyed painting in the courtroom. It took Margaret just 53 minutes to complete hers. Walter refused to do his, claiming he had a sore shoulder.
The jury found in Margaret’s favour and she was awarded $4 million in damages. She said, “I really feel that justice has triumphed. It’s been worth it, even if I don’t see any of the 4 million dollars.” And indeed, she never saw a cent.
Walter and USA Today appealed the decision in 1990. This time the court upheld the defamation judgement but overturned the damages, which Margaret had to pay back. She said she didn’t care about the money but was just pleased to get the credit for her paintings.
In Hawaii she met sportswriter Dan McGuire and they became partners. She also became a Jehovah’s Witness. People said her paintings became gentler when she discovered God. “Now I paint bright colours. I paint paintings that are happy…”
Walter claimed it was a Jehovah’s Witness conspiracy to destroy him. But nobody took him seriously anymore.
Walter died in 2000, aged 86. He died penniless. His biographer said, “He loved women and he loved himself.”
After 25 happy years in Hawaii, Margaret and Dan moved to Napa Valley in California.
Film director Tim Burton was a collector of her artwork. In 2014 he made a biopic about her called, appropriately, ‘Big Eyes’. She is played by Amy Adams. Burton tried to give her money for the film rights, but she always refused him. She makes a cameo appearance in the film as an old lady sitting on a park bench.
She said the film was important – “I hope it tells people to never tell a lie. Never! One tiny lie can turn into horrendous, terrible things.”
Her works inspired the toys ‘Little Miss No Name’ and ‘Susie Sad Eyes’. They also led to the cartoon ‘The Powerpuff Girls’, written by Craig McCracken. In the show the girls’ teacher is called Mrs Keane.
She had her own gallery in San Francisco, the ‘Keane Eyes Gallery’.
In 2017, Margaret began receiving hospice care in Napa Valley, but responded well.
The LA Art Show gave her a lifetime achievement award in 2018.
She died of a heart attack.
RIP – Reclaimed Images & Paintings