“Big Eyes” artist Margaret Keane dies at the age of 94


"Big Eyes" artist Margaret Keane dies at the age of 94

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Artist Margaret Keane, known for her distinctive paintings of wide-eyed figures, has died at the age of 94.
Keane, whose husband made himself famous for her work before losing a high-profile legal battle — a story immortalized about her life in director Tim Burton’s film Big Eyes — died Sunday at her home in Napa, California. Her death was confirmed to CNN by Robert Brown, the manager of her gallery, Keane Eyes.

Born in 1927 in Nashville, Tennessee, Keane enrolled in art classes at the age of 10. After attending the Traphagen School of Fashion, an art and design school in New York City, she developed her signature style – melancholy depictions of cartoonish women, children and animals, often referred to as “waifs” with wide eyes.

“I painted my own inner feelings,” she told The New York Times in 1992. “I was very sad and very confused as to why there is so much sadness in the world and why God allows wickedness.”
"boy and poodle" (1982) by Margaret Keane.

Boy and Poodle (1982) directed by Margaret Keane. Recognition: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA

In 1955 she married real estate agent Walter Keane, who offered to sell her paintings while secretly passing them off as his own. It wasn’t until she accompanied him to San Francisco nightclub The Hungry i, where he often peddled her work, that she discovered the deception.

“He left me sitting in a corner,” Keane recalled to the Guardian in 2014, “and he was over there, talking, selling paintings, when someone came up to me and said, ‘Do you paint too?’ And I suddenly thought – just a terrible shock – ‘Does he get credit for my paintings?’”

Keane eventually agreed to continue with the arrangement and her husband enjoyed significant commercial success. The paintings were widely distributed in the 1960s – not only as canvases and prints, but also on plates, postcards and mugs.

The works divided the art world. But while some critics dismissed them as cliché and excessive kitsch, the likes of Andy Warhol also praised them. “I think what Keane has done is amazing,” the pop artist once told Life magazine, in a quote opening Burton’s film. “If it was bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Walter and Margaret Keane in 1960.

Walter and Margaret Keane in 1960. Recognition: Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann archive

After divorcing Walter in 1965, Keane moved to Hawaii from California and began seeking public recognition for her work. When her ex-husband denied the claim, she famously arranged a “painting” in San Francisco’s Union Square, though he declined the challenge.

In 1986 he was again asked to prove he could recreate the paintings’ distinctive style – this time in front of a jury. Keane had sued him (and USA Today) in a Honolulu court for defamation after he continued to claim credit. The judge ordered both Keane and her ex-husband to draw a wide-eyed child, though the latter declined, citing a shoulder injury. She completed a painting for the court in less than an hour.

The jury was persuaded, and Keane was awarded $4 million, although that sum was later reversed. She never received any compensation. “I didn’t care about the money,” she later said, according to Citizen Keane, a book about the scandal. “I just wanted to state that I took the pictures.”

Keane’s work sparked renewed interest with the release of Burton’s Big Eyes in 2014, in which the artist was played by Amy Adams. On Wednesday, the film’s co-writer Larry Karaszewski paid tribute to Keane on Twitter, saying he was “grateful” “for spending so much time getting to know her beautiful mind.”

keane "Keiki Lisa" (1986).

Keane’s “Keiki Lisa” (1986). Recognition: © Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA

“It took a decade for ‘Big Eyes’ to hit the big screen,” he wrote, adding, “She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”

According to her gallery, Keane painted almost every day well into her nineties. She is survived by a daughter and five stepchildren (from separate marriages) and eight step-grandchildren, according to a statement the gallery posted to Instagram on Wednesday.

“We will miss her love, creative genius (sic) and passion to continue creating new work until her death,” the statement said.

Pictured above: Margaret Keane at the New York premiere of Big Eyes in 2014.

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