Margaret Keane, an artist known for her big-eyed paintings, died at 94.
Margaret Keane was embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to her work after her husband demanded a confession, a story told by Tim Burton in the 2014 film Big Eyes. According to her daughter, Jane Swigert, the artist passed away at home in Napa, California due to heart failure.
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins, Margaret Keane studied design in New York City before finding work painting cribs in the 1950s. Margaret Keane later moved on to her own art. She soon met Walter Keane in 1955. He discovered her signature paintings, sad children with saucer eyes, and began selling Margaret Keane’s big eyes paintings to comedy clubs. Convincing her that this was a more realistic solution, she agreed to have him pocket the credits, telling the Guardian in 2014 that it “tore” her apart.
By the 1960s, the big eyes portraits were ubiquitous, with stars like Dean Martin and Joan Crawford buying originals.
Andy Warhol said at the time: “I think what Keane did is amazing. It should be good. If it was bad, a lot of people wouldn’t like it.”
But art historians were not impressed with Margaret Keane’s paintings. And in 1964 at the World’s Fair, a large-scale painting called “Tomorrow Forever” was called “tasteless hack” by the New York Times before it was immediately removed.
The artist said that when people said that these were just sentimental things, it really hurt her. Some people couldn’t even look at them. She said that she did not know what caused such a violent reaction.
The couple divorced soon after. And in 1970, Margaret Keane announced that she was a real artist. In 1986, she sued Walter Keane and USA Today for claiming he was the author of the pictures. Margaret won her case but never received her $4 million in damages because Walter Keane was bankrupt.
Margaret’s story was later made into the 2014 film Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams. This led to a brief resurgence in the popularity of Margaret Keane’s paintings. She called watching the film a “traumatic” experience.
The film’s co-writer Larry Karaszewski paid tribute to her on Facebook, saying he’s grateful we’ve all spent so much time getting to know her beautiful soul.
“It took a decade to bring Big Eyes to the screen. But her account of her experience of abuse was important. She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”
In 2018, the then-Los Angeles Art Exhibition awarded her a Lifetime Achievement Award during a retrospective of her work. Margaret called it “a real blessing”.