Eyes are the window: A quick intro to Margaret Keane

Margaret Keane, Sad Eye Margaret Keane, Sad Eye. Sold for $1,063 via Doyle New York (December 2011).

Margaret Keane’s sad, soulful big-eyed art is instantly recognisable the world over, but for a time she remained unknown, even while her art soared in popularity. She had been kept in the shadows by her controlling husband, Walter, who claimed authorship of her work. She has since enjoyed huge commercial success, with a resurgence of interest following the release of Tim Burton’s 2014 biopic Big Eyes and Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper, Margaret Keane prints and paintings command high prices at auction

“The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul,” said the most popular painter of eyes since El Greco. Those are the words of Margaret M Keane, but it was in fact her former husband Walter Keane who likened her work to that of El Greco. Throughout the sixties he had claimed credit for her paintings, while Margaret remained unknown, keeping her deepest feelings within the eyes of her paintings. 

Margaret Keane prints and paintings have hung on so many suburban walls; it’s hard to imagine now that the queen of kitsch would have been unknown, while her work became ever more popular, and Walter made millions at her expense. Everything changed when Margaret divorced Walter in 1965. Although Walter would eventually confess the ruse, he denied it for many years until in the mid-eighties, she won a defamation lawsuit when a judge proposed each produce a painting in court. Walter refused citing a sore shoulder, whereas Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes. She was awarded $4 million in damages.

Tomorrow forever

Margaret would later reveal the domineering and controlling conditions of her 10 year marriage to Walter, during which she had produced increasingly popular paintings, all the while her fame grew without her. A year before her divorce, she painted what Walter described as his ‘masterwork’. It was called Tomorrow Forever. It depicted 100 sad-looking, big-eyed children of all races standing in a line that stretches to the horizon. The organisers of the 1964 World’s Fair hung it in their Pavilion of Education.  

Not everyone was a fan of Margaret Keane though, as the art critic John Canaday reviewed Tomorrow Forever for the New York Times. “This tasteless hack work contains about 100 children and hence it is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.” Stung by the review, the World’s Fair took down the painting.

Despite the playful style of painting and the angelic big eyed children, there’s a haunting quality to the ‘masterwork’ and that was no coincidence. It reflected Margaret’s state of mind at the time –  a year before her divorce. This would change though in the following years, as the trademark Margaret Keane big eyes paintings began to slowly exude an air of joyfulness.

Margaret’s re-birth

Keane’s blossoming is perfectly encapsulated in the bright, bold and beautiful painting, Great Adventure, which depicts a joyous pairing of animals in as many bright and brilliant colors that you can think of. It’s no coincidence that around this time Margaret became a Jehovah’s Witness, remarried, moved to Hawaii and started painting big-eyed children swimming in crystal clear seas with tropical fish.

Life was better for Margaret and this showed in her painting. Her career was similarly on an upward trajectory as Hollywood actors Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood and Jerry Lewis commissioned Keane to paint their portraits, as did the one-and-only King of Kitsch, Liberace. Andy Warhol was impressed too: “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”.

Lightness of touch

Keane’s lightness of touch was clear for all to see in paintings such as the playful Josey, which depicts a cat clinging onto a tree branch. The big eyes remain, but they have a sparkly playfulness, reflected in the laughter and increasingly brighter colours

Margaret currently resides in Napa County, California, with her daughter Jane and son-in-law and despite being a nonagenarian, she still influences future generations, as the Powerpuff Girls animated series that debuted in 1999 includes a trio of girls with abnormally large eyes was inspired by Margaret Keane’s art – as well as the lead character’s teacher named ‘Ms. Keane’. 

While the market for Margaret Keane prints and paintings continue to generate competitive bidding at auction, somewhere out there is a Keane-influenced artist for the next generation…



by Dan Mobbs