Margaret Keane’s paintings with their doe-eyed little girls and whimsical settings were made famous in the ’50s, showing up in galleries all over San Francisco. However, back then she was married to Walter Keane, a failed painter who stole credit for all of her famous works.
Her paintings feature downtrodden waifs and animals with characteristic giant eyes and tiny bodies. When asked about her motivation for these creepy images, she said, “The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul.”
In 1990, she took Walter to court to reclaim her legacy. The judge requested that they each paint a piece for him to prove their ability. Margaret would have won $4 million in the suit, had Walter not already thrown away their fortune.
Last year, Tim Burton, whose work shows noticeable inspiration from Margaret’s pieces, directed a film highlighting her life and eventual court win called “Big Eyes.” Margaret herself was played by Amy Adams.
What struck me most about Burton’s portrayal of the sad story, was the focus on sexism in Margaret’s time. In discussions between her and her husband, Walter always insisted that if people knew a woman was the artist, the pieces just wouldn’t sell. This is what forced Margaret to continue lying to the public about the paintings’ origins, despite how the deception pained her.
There are some even today who come to her studio in Sonoma County wondering about the real creator of the pieces. However, she says that the popularity of “Big Eyes,” the movie, has helped eliminate some of the skeptics.
Even today, the art world is affected by sexism, although not as much as during Margaret’s time. The rise of feminism in art (including much of my own work) has begun to make a dent in the way female artists are looked at in the modern world.
Even without knowing Margaret Keane and her fascinating story, it is likely that most Americans have seen her work on greeting cards or magnets in gift shops across the country.