Who was Margaret Keane? Renowned “Big Eyes” artist dies at 94.
Article written by Caroline Haller
Margaret Keane’s works are sentimental canvases featuring mostly women and children with large haunting eyes. Though art critics called her works nothing more than kitsch collectables, Keane maintained a loyal fanbase and her story took the world by storm. (Figure 1)
Last Sunday, June 26th, 2022, famed artist Margaret Keane passed away in her Napa Valley home. Keane’s instantly recognizable art featured children with “Big Eyes” and her life story inspired the 2014 Tim Burton film of the same name.
“Big Eyes” featured Amy Adams as the artist and brought worldwide fame to Keane’s kitschy art. Keane’s story features a riveting case of 20th century fraud because her ex-husband Walter Keane spent decades claiming the paintings were his.
Figure 1. Margaret Keane, Boy and Poodle, 1982 © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA provided by CNN
Keane, formerly Peggy Doris Hawkins, was born on September 15th, 1927, in Tennessee. An early operation caused her permanent hearing loss, which has been cited as a reason she chose to focus on painting big eyes.
Keane started drawing and studying at an early age. She attended the Watkins Institute in Nashville, where she took art classes and eventually spent a year at the Traphagen School of Design in NYC. At only 18 years old, Keane was painting in oil and acrylic, when she devised her iconic style and painted women, children and animals with big, bold eyes.
In 1948, Keane married Frank Richard Ulbrich, with whom she shares a daughter, Jane Swigert.
In 1955, she divorced Ulbrich when she met and married Walter Keane. Keane was a real estate agent, and when he saw his new wife’s iconic big eye paintings, he decided to take credit for the works. Selling himself as the artist of the works, Walter organized shows, exhibited the works in galleries and profited off of Margaret’s hard work. (Figure 2)
Figure 2. Margaret and Walter Keane at home in 1963. © Bettmann/Corbis
Walter often sold her work at the San Francisco nightclub called The Hungry i. One night Margaret went with him. It was then that she discovered Walter’s deceit.
Oscar Holland for CNN recounted the event, “Keane recalled to the Guardian in 2014, ‘and he was over there, talking, selling paintings, when somebody walked over to me and said: ‘Do you paint too?’ And I suddenly thought – just horrible shock – ‘Is he taking credit for my paintings?’”
However, she kept painting for him. For years, Walter kept Margaret under house arrest, forcing her to paint continuously and controlling the bank account which held the money made off of her art. Walter even appeared on talk shows. Catalogues were produced with his “works” and biography. A TIME Magazine article about the art noted, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.”  (Figure 3)
Figure 3. Walter Keane, c. 1960s © AP/ Press Association Images
Margaret and Walter divorced in 1965, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Margaret started claiming the Big Eyes paintings as her own. Margaret had moved to Hawaii after separating from Walter and finally got up the courage to sue Walter for libel. The trial took place in 1986, where the court decided that a “paint-off” would determine who the real artist was. Walter claimed that his hurt shoulder prevented him from painting.
Margaret knew it was her time to shine. She painted an iconic “Big Eyes” canvas in under an hour. The presiding judge awarded Margaret $4 million in damages and declared her the genius behind the “Big Eyes” paintings. She would never see the money, because Walter declared bankruptcy shortly after the conclusion of the trial.
After winning the suit, Margaret Keane continued to paint and did well with her art. In 2014, Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson published the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes. In the book, she wrote that she didn’t care about the money, just that she people knew she was responsible for the paintings.
Keane was heavily involved in the process of creating Burton’s “Big Eyes” film and was quoted as having said that Christoph Waltz’s strikingly accurate performance of her ex-husband Walter shocked her. It took 11 years to get the story right!
After her story became public knowledge, Keane was commissioned to paint portraits of Joan Crawford, Jerry Lewis, and Liberace. Additionally, her works are or were owned by Andy Warhol, Dean Martin and the United Nations.
Since 1992, Keane owned and operated Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco where she lived with family and sold her art.
At the LA Art Show, in 2018, Keane was awarded for her lifetime of achievement. She continued to paint daily into her 90’s. Keane is and will be extremely missed. She was commended for her creative genius and passion for painting.
Holland, Oscar, “’Big Eyes’ Artist Margaret Keane dies aged 94,” CNN, 30 June 2022.
“Margaret Keane Kitsch Painter Of Big Eyed Children Dies Aged 94.” Artlyst The Independent Art Voice, 30 June 2022.
Russell, David, “Margaret Keane, ‘Big Eyes’ painter, dead at 94,” NY Post, 29 June 2022.
 Holland, Oscar, “’Big Eyes’ Artist Margaret Keane dies aged 94,” CNN, 30 June 2022.
 “Margaret Keane Kitsch Painter Of Big Eyed Children Dies Aged 94.” Artlyst The Independent Art Voice, 30 June 2022.