The Woman Behind the Big-Eyed Paintings: Margaret Keane

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Through Women’s History Month, a woman to recognize within the art community is Margaret Keane. She was an American artist known for painting women, children, and animals with very large eyes. Every artist has their trademark, and for Margaret, the “big eyes,” as they were called, made her work famous. The eyes of her subjects evoked so much emotion since she painted many of them crying and not smiling. Thus, Margaret depicted a melancholy tone in her work. So many people wondered why she had her subjects appear so vulnerable. Why did she focus so much on their eyes? Margaret’s story and journey as a female artist explains. Her paintings gained international fame in the late 50s and early 60s, when her ex-husband, Walter Keane, helped advertise her work. Unfortunately, he ended up taking full credit for her work during their ten-year marriage. When, in fact, Margaret was the true artist. In 2014, Tim Burton directed the movie Big Eyes, documenting her success and struggle. She is the definition of resilience and strength during an era when she could not claim her artwork as her own. Although Margaret is no longer with us having died last year, her story as an artist and a woman needs to be known in the art community today.

 

How did Margaret’s journey begin? Fortunately for her, she discovered her artistic talent at an early age. She was born on September 15, 1927, in Nashville, Tennessee, and as a child, she suffered an ear infection. This led to hearing loss, thus she was known to stare deep into people’s eyes. According to writer Safoora Seyedi from Darz Art Magazine, acknowledged how “Margaret Keane’s “eyes” narrate a personal story. She suffered from hearing loss since childhood, so she used to look at people’s eyes to communicate with them.” Her fixation with the eyes became her inspiration for her artwork as an adult. Her journey was just beginning. She made the eyes so big to communicate emotion to her audience. Little did Margaret realize she would benefit from this artistic form of communication later in life.

In 1948, Margaret married her first husband, Frank Ulbrich, with whom she had a daughter named Jane. Margaret and Frank remained married until 1955. After the divorce, she and her daughter left for San Francisco. Shortly after arriving, Margaret met Walter Keane, a former salesman, who she married quickly. As a salesman, Walter promoted Margaret’s artwork. In the beginning, it sounded like a wonderful way to spread Margaret’s name, but she signed all her paintings under the name “Keane.” Walter took advantage of the name and took credit for all of Margaret’s paintings. Through the major success and fame the paintings brought, Walter’s true colors revealed him as an aggressive con artist. Margaret found herself confined and trapped, painting in her home. Writer Jon Ronson from The Guardian wrote she was “working in virtual slavery to maintain his success.” Evidently, their marriage revolved around Walter’s success, which featured him appearing on talk shows and galleries falsely discussing where he got his inspiration for the paintings. Meanwhile, at home, Margaret painted children with large eyes. The children she painted were nobody in particular. Rather, Margaret just wanted to capture their vulnerability through their eyes as a gateway to her own feelings.

Margaret had said, “Those sad children were really my own deep feelings that I couldn’t express in any other way. Their eyes were searching. Asking, “Why?” Why is there so much sadness? Why do we have to get sick and die? Why do people shoot each other?”

In 1965, she answered her own question by escaping Walter along with her daughter and moving to Hawaii. She didn’t lose hope. Five years later, in 1970, Margaret felt comfortable speaking about the truth of her paintings. Thus, claiming herself as the true artist. As a result, she and Walter went to court. While in court to settle their case, they were both challenged to paint a big eye painting. Margaret managed to paint one on the spot and Walter made up an excuse about his arm “hurting.” Margaret won the case, and she walked away with $4 million. Yet, in the end, she only cared about gaining ownership and credibility for her artwork. Burton’s film concludes with the narrator saying, “Two things mattered to Margaret: her daughter and her paintings. And after all the crazy turns the story took, she came out at the end with both of them.”

 

Margaret happily continued to paint her big eyes until her death this past year on June 26, 2022, in Napa, California. According to her daughter, she died of heart failure at 94 years old. Nevertheless, Margaret’s legacy continues. Her paintings have been collected by national and contemporary art museums all over the world, such as Bruges, Madrid, Hawaii, Mexico City, Tennessee, Tokyo, California, and New York. Outside of galleries, Margaret’s big-eyed paintings have been impactful for children. They were used for the toy designs of the dolls Little Miss No Name and Susie Sad Eyes. In addition, her big eyes became the inspiration for the character designs of Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls in 1998. Interestingly, the teacher’s name in the show is Ms. Keane to honor Margaret.

For Women’s History Month, Margaret Keane is an important icon, a woman who had to fight for her voice. Through her, we learn as a female artist in the 50s and 60s, she couldn’t use her name on her artwork. It called for her to use another name, which was none other than her husband’s. Margaret followed along with this because she was expected to, and it sounded like the right thing to do. However, she didn’t think Walter would use the name “Keane” to own and control their marriage and her artwork. Although Margaret was known for being an introverted and reserved woman, she did not give up. She refused to lose her gift, let alone have someone else take credit for her work. Many young female artists today can take after this extraordinarily resilient woman.


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