But even as her work was acquired by the likes of Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Liberace and Jerry Lewis, Ms. Keane’s talent remained unknown to virtually everyone except her husband, Walter Keane. A former real estate agent with a genius for promotion, he was more of a con artist than a true artist, a con artist who falsely took credit for their work.
“The whole thing snowballed,” Ms. Keane recalled in an interview with The New York Times, “and by then it was too late to say it wasn’t him who painted her. I will always regret not being strong enough to stand up for my rights.”
After years of silence, Ms. Keane got up, divorced her husband, and in 1970 told journalists that she was the one who made all those paintings and drawings signed “KEANE.” She was later corroborated during a courtroom painting-off when — after suing her ex-husband for defamation — she completed one of her signature sad-eyed waif paintings for a jury, and executed the painting in under an hour. Her ex-husband declined to take the brush to canvas, citing a shoulder injury.
Ms. Keane was 94 when she died on June 26 at her home in Napa, California, where she continued to draw and paint until her death. The cause was a heart condition, said her daughter Jane Swigert.
While Ms. Keane’s works fetched large sums of money on the art market, they polarized viewers, many of whom found them frightening and spooky too intensely to hang on the wall. “I think a lot of people were afraid to look at them and still are,” she told Los Angeles Magazine in 2018. “They say they love them, but they can’t live with them.”
Art critics liked to trash her work and generally considered her tacky and overly sentimental. In 1964, when the Times’ John Canaday reviewed one of her more ambitious works, a painting titled “Tomorrow Forever,” which showed dozens of wide-eyed children in a line stretching to the horizon, he called her paintings “the very definition.” tasteless hacking.”
But Ms. Keane’s admirers were legion – and loud. Art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway told Life magazine that Ms. Keane’s work was “heroically distasteful” (“It’s incredibly vulgar, it’s weird, but it’s still gorgeous,” he explained), while Andy Warhol declared, ” if it was bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Another supporter, Joan Crawford, suggested filling her home with Keane paintings: “I had a fountain that fit one just right.”
Ms. Keane’s work has been credited with influencing pop surrealists such as Mab Graves and Mark Ryden, and shaped the wide-eyed look of Cartoon Network’s animated series The Powerpuff Girls, which starred a school teacher named after Ms. Keane. Director Tim Burton, who collected her paintings, later introduced her art to younger generations with his 2014 film Big Eyes, which starred Amy Adams as Ms. Keane and Christoph Waltz as her husband.
At 87, “Big Eyes” artist Margaret Keane gets her Hollywood breakthrough
In part, the appearance of those “big eyes” was influenced by mastoid surgery that permanently damaged Ms. Keane’s hearing when she was 2 years old. To understand what people were saying, she began to watch their faces closely and study their eyes as she talked. She said she later realized that her subject was also a reflection of her own turbulent personal life, which included a spiritual journey that led her to explore astrology and transcendental meditation before becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.
“At first I didn’t know why I did them,” she told the Times in 1992, describing her pictures. “They all have these big eyes. I painted my own inner feelings. I was very sad and very confused as to why there is so much sadness in the world and why God allows wickedness.”
Ms. Keane had been painting wide-eyed figures for years before meeting and marrying Walter Keane in 1955 while living in the bohemian North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. “He was just oozing with charm,” she recalled, and for a while they seemed to make a good team: while she was painting at home, he promoted and sold her work, mostly while hanging out at the Hungry I nightclub.
Two years into the relationship, she joined him at the club and discovered that he had begun to get recognition for her pictures. She got a tip, she told the Guardian, “when someone came up to me and said, ‘Do you paint too?’ ”
Her husband later tried to issue a statement. “He said, ‘We need the money. People are more likely to buy a painting if they think they are talking to the artist. People don’t want to believe that I can’t paint and that my wife has to paint. People already think I drew the big eyes, and if I suddenly say it was you, it will be confusing and people will start suing us. ”
At Walter Keane’s suggestion, Ms. Keane tried to teach him how to draw the wide-eyed waifs. He was unable to do so and accused her of being a bad teacher. “In the end, I went along with it,” she recalls. “And it just tore me up.”
In interviews and appearances on programs such as The Tonight Show, her husband claimed that he began painting wide-eyed orphans after a visit to Berlin in 1946, when he encountered starving children fighting over scraps of food. He compared himself to Michelangelo, El Greco and Rembrandt, and with the proceeds from Ms. Keane’s artwork he bought a gated house with a swimming pool and servants.
While her husband hung out with Maurice Chevalier and members of the Beach Boys, Ms. Keane painted 16 hours a day in a locked room. She said her husband effectively held her captive, preventing her from making friends and threatening to “knock her out” if she told anyone she was the artist behind the eyes.
Ms. Keane eventually bought a plane ticket to Hawaii and divorced her husband after a decade of marriage. She kept her secret for another five years before deciding she had had enough. “Give us paint, brush and canvas and let’s loose in Union Square at noon,” she told United Press International, “and we’ll see who can paint eyes.”
Her ex-husband did not accept this offer. But after continuing to insist that he invented the big-eye style and USA Today suggesting that Ms. Keane claimed the images simply because she thought he was dead, Ms. Keane sued him for defamation, resulting in the 1986 color-off in federal court in Honolulu.
After painting a big-eyed little boy in 53 minutes – “the fastest thing I’ve ever drawn in my life” – Ms Keane was awarded a $4 million judgment. The verdict was upheld on appeal, although the amount was considered excessive. Ms. Keane didn’t seem to care.
“I didn’t want any money anyway,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “I just wanted a legal win.”
The older of two children, she was born Margaret Doris Hawkins on September 6, 1927 in Nashville. Her father was an insurance agent and her mother a teacher. In a 1975 article for Awake, a magazine of Jehovah’s Witnesses, she described herself as “a sickly child, often alone and very shy.”
In her loneliness, she turned to drawing and at the age of 10 enrolled at the Watkins Art School, now part of Belmont University in Nashville. She later studied at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City, where she lived with her first husband, Frank Ulbrich. Together they ran a small shop that sold hand-printed ties. The marriage ended in divorce.
In 1966, Mrs. Keane married Dan McGuire, a sports columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser whom she had helped rebuild her life after her divorce from Keane. Her husband died in 1983. Walter Keane died in 2000.
In addition to her daughter Swigert, survivors include five stepchildren from her third marriage, Mary Ann Russo and Danny, Maureen, Brian and Colleen McGuire; and eight step-grandchildren.
Ms. Keane moved back to the San Francisco area in 1991, and in 2018 she received a lifetime achievement award at Littletopia, a section of the LA Art Show dedicated to lowbrow and pop art. By then, her art had taken on a brighter, more cheerful tone, which she attributed to her baptism as a Jehovah’s Witness in 1972.
“The children’s faces reflect the inner joy and peace that I have,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “They still have big eyes, but some even laugh.”