"As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest."
In the state of northern California, in the vineyards of Napa, at a small suburban house is a family devout to Jehovah's Witness. A member of that family is Margaret Keane, an American artist famous for her style of painting – having subjects with big eyes. She was once married to Walter Keane; a man who would take credit of her work and become abusive, before they later divorced and sued him for defamation in 1970. Her story would later be narrated in the film "Big Eyes" by Tim Burton in 2014.
Margaret Keane was born on September 15, 1927, in Nashville Tennessee as Peggy Doris Hawkins. When she was two, she underwent a mastoid operation that damaged her eardrum permanently. Her perception of understanding people changed. She would watch the eyes of people talking to her to place meaning on what they were saying. She took classes at Watkins Institute in Nashville. Keane's love for art started at an early age and was fond of developing characters with big sad eyes. She then attended a number of art schools both at Northern California and New York, where she met and got married to Frank Ulrich, and they had a daughter named Jane. They would later divorce during the mid-1950s and relocated to San Francisco.
Enter Walter Keane
Walter was never a melancholic man. He was a lover, never shot of joy and a drinker. And this is how he met Margaret Keane. He met her at an outdoor art market. In the words of Margaret, he would start 'I love your paintings … The children in your paintings are so sad. It hurts my eyes to see them. Your perspective and the sadness you portray in the faces of the children make me want to touch them.' However, she would refrain him from doing so.
At the time of their paths crossing, Walter was still unknown and would not strike gold until a few years later. He was working in real estate although he represented himself as an artist having studied art in Paris. He also had a daughter from another marriage, and they soon got married in 1955, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
With the help of Keane, Walter was able to transition into selling art right after their marriage. He started by selling art pieces done by her wife at the San Francisco beatnik club The Hungry i. However, little did Margaret know that on top of selling the art pieces, he was also taking credit for them. He would sign them with a tag in his name.
However, Walter could not paint to save his life. According to his biography, he details having seen sad children in post-war Berlin. He writes, '"As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.'
Keane realized this at one point when he was at the club seated at a corner with Walter selling the art pieces. It was not until one man also asked him if he painted, and he agreed. This made her furious and decided to confront him. However, she would spend a huge part of her life, watching him in admiration as he referred to himself as the best painter since El Greco on interviews.
All in all, Walter was a great salesman and was able to drive huge sales on Margaret's work, which was now worth millions. Postcards, with her art, were selling in the millions and were very popular. Her art was sought by different luminaries such as Kim Novak, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Joan Crawford, who were after the original versions. The art featured different subjects such as women and children with particularly big eyes, which would be nicknamed 'Big Eyed Waifs' or 'Keane's Eyes.' The public loved the art while critics seemed to dismiss Margaret's work.
During this time, Margaret was living in misery while her husband carried on with his charade. The public believed him, and he kept on doing it. Walter also became emotionally abusive, a philander and a drunk, who would keep Margaret locked up in the studio to keep on painting. However, it was all until Walter threatened Margaret and her daughter that she decided to leave. She divorced Walter in 1965 and got married a short while after before converting into a Jehovah's witness and settling down in Hawaii.
It was not until a radio interview in 1970 that Margaret decided to speak against injustices done by her husband and revealed that she had actually created the paintings. Walter would counter this through an interview and story run by USA Today during the mid-1980s denying the claims and argued that Margaret was lying. However, Margaret sued him for defamation at a Honolulu federal court. The trial began in 1986, and she was asked by the jury to produce one of her figures within an hour.
Walter, on the other hand, cited a recent shoulder injury and refused to draw. Margaret quickly completed the drawings and the jurors having ascertained that the paintings were hers, awarded her $4 million in damages. The painting was of a small girl with huge eyes, nervously peering from behind a fence.
The painting was a win against Walter's lies. However, she did get any of the money as Walter has already squandered the proceeds of her paintings. Walter was later diagnosed with a delusional disorder by a court psychologist. He would later die in 2000, a while after he had given up drinking. In his memoir, his sobriety had been a new awakening. A step in the right direction, far away from his old days of parties, art buyers and beautiful women.
Tim Burton would later dramatize Margaret's life in the movie Big Eyes. The movie features actress Amy Adams playing Margaret while award-winning Christoph Waltz played Walter. Amy Adams won a Golden Globe in 2015 for her role in this movie. 200 of Margaret original's pieces were reproduced for this film while the actors had to meet with Margaret to study her personality and her drawing process.
Margaret described the movie as 'really traumatic' and was 'in shock for a couple of days.' Christoph Waltz played the role very well. He resembled Walter, talked and sounded like him. Additionally, since its release, there has been a growing interest in her work.
Since then, she has continued to paint back at Napa, California while showcasing her work at the Keane Eyes Gallery since 1992.