223: The Self-Empowered Woman: Margaret Keane

Dear Followers,

Sorry for the big gap in blogs, but I’ve undergone a major website revamp. As a result, the blogs had to be placed on hold until all the kinks got ironed out. Fortunately, we’re back in business and I’m ready to introduce you to another amazing Self-Empowered Woman.

 Most Baby Boomers probably remember (from their high school and college years) the popularity of those “big eyes” Keane paintings that littered the landscape of our youth. In a scenario that is eerily reminiscent of Louis Comfort Tiffany quietly taking credit for Clara Driscoll’s inspired stained-glass lamps, a similar but scarier “artistic theft” was behind those wildly successful sad “big eyes” faces.

 Margaret D. H. Keane was born in Tennessee in 1927, and knew from early childhood that she wanted to be an artist. Her first oil painting was made when she was eleven years old, and portrayed two versions of the same little girl—one in the background with sad tear-filled eyes, and one in the foreground with bright smiling eyes (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

 She was a shy sickly child who spent most of her time alone during a childhood in what is often referred to as “The Bible Belt.” Her grandmother was a staunch Methodist, and Margaret grew up grounded in a deep respect for the Bible (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

 Margaret met Walter Keane in 1953, when he saw her at a fair where she was selling charcoal sketches to support herself and her daughter. His first marriage to a fashion design professor at The University of California at Berkeley was essentially over, and—professionally—he was torn between his love of art and his need to make money. Margaret had attended art school in Tennessee and New York, and soon helped Walter change careers from selling real estate to managing art galleries in New York and San Francisco.

 He couple married in Honolulu in 1955, and soon after he began to take credit for her “Big Eyes” paintings. In later years, she explained that the sad-eyed paintings reflected the depression she experienced while living with a philandering husband who had a drinking problem. Soon, according to Margaret, “Painting used to be almost an obsession with me. I was driven to paint because it was my therapy, escape and relaxation…my life completely revolved around it” (7: Magnificent Obsession). During that very dark time in her life, Walter forced her to create paintings under his name, kept her locked in a room at night, and threatened to kill Margaret and her daughter if she ever revealed the truth about who was the real artist in the family (12: Hard Times).

 In 1965, the couple divorced (15: Forget About Prince Charming).  Finally, in the 1980s, she revealed that she had been the true artist behind those wildly successful (if widely criticized) portraits. Walter had earned millions from the paintings, which sold for as much as $50,000 each. They were also reproduced as ceramic plates, greeting cards, lithographs and posters, and the waif portraits had a fan base that included Joan Crawford, Jerry Lewis, Kim Novak, Andy Warhol, Tom Wolfe and Natalie Wood.

 When the couple latter went to Federal Court, Margaret challenged her ex-husband (they had not seen each other for over a decade) to a public paint-off, and in 53 minutes she produced a small boy’s face with giant eyes. Walter refused to cooperate due to a “shoulder injury.”  The jury was convinced—after a three and a half week trial—and she was awarded $4 million (8: Turning No Into Yes). She has claimed that she will never see the money, but the victory was still worth it in part because Tim Burton has decided to make a movie about the couple’s story that is expected to be released this December.  Amy Adams will play Margaret.

 The original inspiration for the “Big Eyes” paintings was the beauty of her infant daughter’s (Jane) big brown eyes. She and her daughter, obviously now an adult, have remained close and supportive throughout Margaret’s life (16: Intensive Motherhood).

 Religion has continued to play a major role in her life, and—after near-obsessive research—(10: The Critic Within), she became a committed Jehovah’s Witness. Her decision upset her third husband and many other close family members, but she ignored their protests (5: Life is Not A Popularity Contest).  Margaret has spent the majority of her adult life in Hawaii, and continues to live in Waikiki.

 Looking forward to your comments…

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.