Margaret Keane

Margaret D. H. Keane (born Peggy Doris Hawkins, September 15, 1927 – June 26, 2022)[1] was an American artist known for her paintings of subjects with big eyes. She mainly painted women, children, or animals in oil or mixed media. The work achieved commercial success through inexpensive reproductions on prints, plates, and cups. It has been critically acclaimed but also criticized as formulaic and cliché. The artwork was originally attributed to Keane's ex-husband, Walter Keane. After their divorce in the 1960s, Margaret soon claimed credit, which was established after a court "paint-off" in Hawaii.[2]

Margaret Keane
Margaret Keane.jpg
Keane at her art studio
Peggy Doris Hawkins

(1927-09-15)September 15, 1927
DiedJune 26, 2022(2022-06-26) (aged 94)
Other names
  • Peggy Ulbrich
  • MDH Keane
  • Margaret McGuire
  • Frank Richard Ulbrich
    (m. 1948; div. 1955)
  • (m. 1955; div. 1965)
  • Daniel Francis McGuire
    (m. 1970; died 1983)

A resurgence of interest in Margaret Keane's work followed the release of Tim Burton's 2014 biopic Big Eyes. She maintained a gallery in San Francisco which boasts "the largest collection of Margaret Keane's art in the entire world."[3] In light of the great gulf between her work's popularity and its critical lampooning, she was sometimes referred to as the "Wayne Newton of the art world."[4]

Early lifeEdit

Peggy Doris Hawkins was born elder of the two children of David Hawkins and Jessie (McBurnett) Hawkins on September 15, 1927, in Nashville, Tennessee.[1][5] When she was two, her eardrum was permanently damaged during a mastoid operation. Unable to hear properly, she learned to watch the eyes of the person talking to her to understand them.[6] She and her brother David studied in public schools.[1] Keane started drawing as a child, and at age 10 she took classes at the Watkins Institute in Nashville.[7][8] Keane painted her first oil painting of two little girls, one crying and one laughing, when she was 10 years old and gave the painting to her grandmother.[9]

At age 18 she attended the Traphagen School Of Design in New York City for a year.[10][11] She began work painting clothing and baby cribs in the 1950s until she finally began a career painting portraits.[10] Early on, Margaret began experimenting in kitsch. She worked in both acrylic and oil-based paints, with the subject of her artwork limited to women, children, and familiar animals (cats, dogs, horses).[12]


Career with Walter KeaneEdit

Some time in the mid-1950s, Margaret, married with a child, met Walter Keane. As Walter Keane told the story when he was at the height of his popularity, he saw her sitting alone at a well known North Beach bistro and he was attracted by her large eyes.[13] At the time Walter was also married, worked as a real estate salesman and painted on the side.[14] He would later tell reporters, however, that he had given up his "highly successful real estate career" in 1947.[15] Margaret found him "suave, gregarious and charming."[14] The two married in 1955 in Honolulu.[16]

Margaret said that he began selling her characteristic "big eyes" paintings immediately, but unknown to her, claimed it was his own work.[14] A principal venue for his sales was the Hungry i, a comedy club in San Francisco.[17] When she discovered his deception, she remained silent. She later explained her behavior: "I was afraid of him because he [threatened] to have me done in if I said anything."[14] Margaret even publicly acknowledged him as the artist, while later claiming it was "tortuous" for her. She rationalized the situation on the ground that "[a]t least they were being shown."[18]

In 1957 Walter began exhibiting the "big eyes" paintings as his own. In February the work was shown on a wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito.[19] He took nine paintings to New Orleans, which he claimed to have sold during Mardi Gras. That summer Walter arranged for a showing at the Washington Square Park Outdoor Art show in New York City. Displaying his talent for promotion, during that trip he arranged for a showing in August at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and another in a small East Side gallery for the same month.[20]

Walter began developing a myth about himself and to a lesser extent Margaret. He eventually began promotions of "The Painting Keanes."[18]

Andy Warhol said "I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn't like it."[21]

A large painting commissioned for the 1964-65 World's Fair had a procession of doe-eyed waifs from the horizon to the foreground, where they lined up on a staircase. Art critic John Canaday described Keane as a painter celebrated "for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics definition of tasteless hack work. [The painting] contains about 100 children and hence is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane."[22] Robert Moses, stung by the resulting criticism, prevented the painting from being displayed at the Fair.[23]

Career after Walter KeaneEdit

In 1970, Margaret Keane announced on a radio broadcast she was the real creator of the paintings that had been attributed to her ex-husband Walter Keane. After Margaret Keane revealed the truth, a "paint-off" between Margaret and Walter was staged in San Francisco's Union Square, arranged by Bill Flang, a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner and attended by the media and Margaret. Walter did not show up.[8][24] In 1986, she sued both Walter and USA Today in federal court for an article claiming Walter was the real artist. At the trial, the judge famously ordered both Margaret and Walter to each create a big-eyed painting in the courtroom, to determine who was telling the truth. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder, whereas Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes. After a three-week trial, the jury awarded her $4 million in damages. After the verdict, Margaret Keane said "I really feel that justice has triumphed. It's been worth it, even if I don't see any of that four million dollars."[21][25][26] A federal appeals court upheld the verdict of defamation in 1990, but overturned the $4 million damage award. Keane said she didn't care about the money, and just wanted to establish the fact that she had done the paintings.[27]

The artworks Margaret Keane created while living in the shadow of her husband tended to depict sad-looking children in dark settings. After she left Walter, she moved to Hawaii and became a Jehovah's Witness after years of following astrology, palmistry, handwriting analysis, and transcendental meditation;[4] her work took on a happier, brighter style. "The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul," Keane explained.[28] Many galleries now advertise her artworks as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness." She described her subjects thus: "These are the paintings of children in paradise. They are what I think the world is going to look like when God's will is done."[4]

Hollywood actors Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, and Jerry Lewis commissioned Keane to paint their portraits.[8][29][30] In the 1990s, Tim Burton, a Keane art collector who would later direct the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes about the life of Margaret Keane, commissioned the artist to paint a portrait of his then-girlfriend Lisa Marie.[31] Keane's art was bought and presented to the United Nations Children's Fund in 1961 by the Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation.[32] Keane's big eyes paintings have influenced toy designs, Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes dolls, and the cartoon The Powerpuff Girls.[11]

In 2018, Keane received a lifetime achievement award at the LA Art Show.[33]


Keane's paintings are recognized by the oversized, doe-like eyes of her subjects.[25] Keane said she was always interested in the eyes and used to draw them in her school books. She began painting her signature "Keane eyes" when she started painting portraits of children. "Children do have big eyes. When I'm doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger," Keane said. Keane focused on the eyes, as they show the inner person more.[9][34] Keane attributed Amedeo Modigliani's work as a major influence on the way she painted women from 1959 on. Other artists who influenced her in terms of color, dimension, and composition include Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and Pablo Picasso.[11] Despite her claims to fine art, she was never a critical success; instead she remained "known for her sticky-sweet paintings of doe-eyed waifs that became the middlebrow rage in the late 1950s and 1960s, then kitschy collectibles of ironic style decades later."[35]

Personal lifeEdit

Keane's first husband was Frank Richard Ulbrich, with whom she had a daughter.[1] In 1955, she married Walter Keane.[1] She left Walter in 1964, divorcing him a year later, and then relocating from San Francisco to Hawaii.[1]

In Hawaii, Keane became a devout Jehovah's Witnesses, which she remained throughout her life. She credited her faith and reading the Bible for giving the courage to speak the truth about her artwork.[36][37]

While still in Hawaii, Keane met Honolulu sports writer Dan McGuire and married him in 1970.[38] She credited McGuire with helping her to become less timid and afraid after her divorce from Walter.[24][39] Keane lived in Hawaii for more than 25 years before returning to California in 1991. She resided in Napa County, California, with her daughter Jane and son-in-law Don Swigert.[34][40]

In 2017 at the age of 90, Keane began hospice care while still living in her home. The additional care that she received through hospice allowed her to recover enough "to paint more and relax".[41] She died from heart failure at her home in Napa, California, on June 26, 2022, at the age of 94.[1]

Media portrayalsEdit

  • In the 1965 comedy film How to Murder Your Wife, Stanley Ford's town house, after being overhauled by his new wife, contains six paintings and drawings in the style of Keane.
  • In 1998, the cartoon series The Powerpuff Girls by animator Craig McCracken debuted, featuring leads with abnormally large eyes inspired by Keane's art; the series also features a character (specifically the leads' teacher) named "Ms. Keane".[42]
  • In 1999, Matthew Sweet's album In Reverse features one of Keane's oil paintings on its cover.[43]
  • In the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes, Margaret Keane and her ex-husband Walter are the main focus of the film. Margaret was portrayed by Amy Adams and Walter was played by Christoph Waltz.[44] The film was directed by Tim Burton.[31] Margaret Keane makes an appearance in the film, as an elderly lady sitting on a park bench, in the scene where Adams' and Waltz's characters are outside the Palace of Fine Arts. Margaret Keane turned down various offers for the film rights. After meetings with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, she agreed to the film rights and approved the screenplays written by Alexander and Karaszewski. The film took 11 years from development to completion.[45]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d e f g McFadden, Robert D. (June 28, 2022). "Margaret Keane, Painter of Sad-Eyed Waifs, Dies at 94". The New York Times. Retrieved June 28, 2022.
  2. ^ Dubin, Zan (July 2, 2000). "The Eyes of Margaret Keane". Los Angeles Times. p. 2. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  3. ^ "About Keane Eyes Gallery". Keane Eyes Gallery. n.d. Retrieved April 19, 2017.
  4. ^ a b c Bishop, Katherine (February 27, 1992). "For Waifs of Art, The Last Laugh". New York Times. p. C1, at C10. ProQuest 109039357.
  5. ^ "Margaret Keane Biography". Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  6. ^ Gallo, Leah (2014). Big Eyes: The Film, the Art. London: Titan Books. p. 8. ISBN 9781783297184.
  7. ^ Gallo 2014, p. 8.
  8. ^ a b c "Margaret Keane 1972 In Hawaii – The Mike Douglas Show". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021.
  9. ^ a b "Margaret Keane, Painter Behind Tim Burton's 'Big Eyes' KQED Arts". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021.
  10. ^ a b Gallo 2014, p. 10.
  11. ^ Warner, Jennifer (2014). Big Eyes and All : the Unofficial Biography of Margaret Keane. n.p.: LifeCaps. p. 4.
  12. ^ Graham, Vera (January 11, 1964). "The Keane Story". [San Mateo, Cal.] Times. p. 3 [Weekend Section]. Retrieved May 31, 2017 – via
  13. ^ a b c d Gallo 2014, p. 11.
  14. ^ Graham, Vera (January 11, 1964). "The Keane Story". [San Mateo, Cal.] Times. p. 2 [Weekend Section]. Retrieved May 31, 2017 – via
  15. ^ "Margaret Keane Gets Divorce". Free Lance–Star. Fredericksburg, Va. March 19, 1965. p. 4. Retrieved May 31, 2017 – via Google News.
  16. ^ UPI (October 15, 1970). "Wife Challenges Artist's Acclaim". [Ontario, Cal] Daily Report. p. 12. Retrieved May 31, 2017.
  17. ^ a b Gallo 2014, p. 13.
  18. ^ "Sausalito Bank Dedicates Wall To The Cause Of Art". Daily Independent Journal. San Rafael, Cal. January 19, 1957. p. 57. Retrieved June 1, 2017 – via
  19. ^ Wilcox, John (June 19, 1957). "Walter Keane, Artist: Crosses the Continent for the Show in the Square". The Village Voice. p. 3. Retrieved June 1, 2017 – via Google News.
  20. ^ a b Spindler, Amy M (May 23, 1999). "Style; An Eye for an Eye". The New York Times.
  21. ^ Canaday, John (February 21, 1964). "Art: World's Fair Pavilion Selects Theme Painting: Walter Keane Work in Education Hall Tomorrow Forever' Aims to Please". New York Times. p. 59.
  22. ^ "Robert Moses rejected this terrifying Margaret Keane painting from hanging at the 1964-65 World's Fair". Bowery Boys History. November 13, 2014. Retrieved June 29, 2022.
  23. ^ a b "The lady behind those Keane-eyed kids". Life Magazine. November 20, 1970. Vol. 69, No. 21 – p. 56. Retrieved December 9, 2010.
  24. ^ a b "Tim Burton 'Big Eyes' Movie Tells The Story Of Art Couple Margaret and Walter Keane..." Huffington Post. April 4, 2013. Retrieved June 9, 2013.
  25. ^ Kunen, James S. (June 23, 1986). "Margaret Keane's Artful Case Proves That She—and Not Her Ex-Husband—made Waifs". People.
  26. ^ "Keane left isles for California in 91". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. August 6, 1997.
  27. ^ "My Life as a Famous Artist," Awake!, July 8, 1975
  28. ^ "Joan Crawford Awards, Art, and Other Personal Items". The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia. Retrieved March 17, 2015.
  29. ^ Bas, Borja (July 19, 2013). "El infierno de la artista que iluminó a Tim Burton" [The Artist Who Brightened Tim Burton Lived Through Hell]. El País. Retrieved March 17, 2015.
  30. ^ a b “The big-eyed children: the extraordinary story of an epic art fraud”, “The Guardian," October 26, 2014, Retrieved October 28, 2014.
  31. ^ Margaret Keane; Walter Stanley Keane; Richard Nolan (1962). Margaret and Walter Keane. Tomorrow's masters series. Prescolite. p. 12.
  32. ^ Ohanesian, Liz (January 12, 2018). "At 90, Big Eyes Painter Margaret Keane Reflects on Her Outsize Influence on Lowbrow Art". Los Angeles Magazine. Retrieved June 29, 2022.
  33. ^ a b Jesse Hamlin (December 14, 2014). "Artist Margaret Keane hasn't lost wide-eyed enthusiasm for work". SF Chronicle.
  34. ^ Hornaday, Ann (December 26, 2014). "The Mysterious Margaret Keane". The Washington Post. p. EZ 26. Retrieved April 19, 2017 – via ProQuest.
  35. ^ "The real-life artist portrayed in 'Big Eyes' credits her newfound faith for helping her take a stand". Deseret News. December 23, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  36. ^ "A 'real' portrait of 'Big Eyes' artist Margaret Keane". Los Angeles Times. December 22, 2014. Retrieved October 15, 2022.
  37. ^ "Big Eyes and All: The Unofficial Biography of Margaret Keane," page 27
  38. ^ "MARGARET KEANE – 1972 – ShirleyTemple & Mike Douglas – BIG EYES". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021.
  39. ^ Huffman, Jennifer (September 29, 2018). "Margaret Keane: the Napan behind the 'Big Eyes' paintings". Napa Valley Register.
  40. ^ Huffman, Jennifer (September 29, 2018). "Hospice care: helping a Napa family cope with medical challenges". Napa Valley Register.
  41. ^ "The Critical eye". Archived from the original on August 10, 2011. Retrieved May 29, 2011.
  42. ^ Stratton, Jeff (February 2, 2000). "Matthew Sweet". The A.V. Club.
  43. ^ "Harvey Weinstein Praises 'Big Eyes' Screenwriters-Producers at Film's Premiere". Variety. December 16, 2014.
  44. ^ "Amy Adams and Margaret Keane tell Big Eyes Movie Story". YouTube. Archived from the original on December 22, 2021.

External linksEdit