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 Diana Billings Art Blog

Margaret Keane - Artist creator of Big Eyes

Many of us North Americans born in the 1950’s and 60’s may remember the big doe eyed pictures of children that our parents hung in our bedrooms. I remember having ballerina pictures in my bedroom, but most certainly I remember friends having these big eyes pictures. These popular inexpensive decor pictures were available everywhere.

Artist Margaret Keane was born Margaret Doris Hawkins in Nashville on September 6th, 1927. Margaret, a shy withdrawn child, started drawing at an early age. Margaret always focused and accentuated on eyes, expressing in drawing what appeared to be big saucer shaped eyes of wonder. Margaret was visually focused on the eyes as a way of understanding expression from others due to Margaret having lost the hearing in her left ear at a young age. By 10 years old Margaret was painting and completed her first painting by 11. At 10 years old Margaret attended art school at Watkins Institute of Art, Design and Film. Then at 18 she went to Traphagen School of Fashion in New York focusing on art and design.

In 1948 Margaret met and married Frank Ulbrich, and had her daughter soon after. The marriage was not working out. Saying they were too young, she divorced and moved to San Fransisco, where in 1955 she met Walter Keane.They married and stayed together until 1965, when she left him due to abuse and threats of herself and her daughters’ safety. During this time Walter Keane was marketing and taking credit for all the artwork Margaret had been prolifically producing for years. Margaret would spend days, sometimes up to 16 hours at a time painting. At the beginning of the sales of her art, Margaret was not aware of Walter taking credit. When she found out she went along with it, Walter Keane pretending he was the true artist and she as the amateur. Margaret did not realizing the injustice she was going though. Upon leaving Walter Keane, Margaret took her daughter moved to Hawaii for a better life.

Then in 1966 she met Daniel McGuire and they married in 1970. Daniel having 5 children meant Margaret and her daughter had a large happy family now. Daniel and Margaret remained married until Daniel passed away in 1983. Daniel was a more supportive husband and encouraged Margaret to seek justice in her mistreatment from Walter Keane. Margaret went to court to prove she was the true artist deserving the credit for all of her hard work. The best way to prove that Margaret was the real artist was to have a “paint -off” in court in front of the judge. Well with out a doubt Margaret was the true artist. Walter Keane did not paint as he said he had an injured shoulder. Margaret finished an entire painting in a short time in front of the entire court room. After the court case Margaret was awarded a 2 million dollar settlement. But Walter Keane declared bankruptcy, Margaret never saw any of the money. In year 2000 Walter Keane died broke and with a tattered reputation.

Margaret was always searching though out her life for spiritual fulfillment. She studied many different religions, manuscripts and any book she could find on religion. Margaret never felt satisfied, unable to find her truth. Finally she met two women who were part of the Jehovah Witness’s. Here Margaret and her daughter found the answers to their spiritual needs.

In 1991 Margaret returned to California, settling in Napa. Margaret was happy and was painting better then ever, producing work that was being collected around the world. Margarets’ art had made a resurgence. She established a gallery in San Fransisco, called Keane Eyes Gallery. Margarets’ art works are in galleries and museums around the world and in the private collections of people like Robert Wagner, Jerry Lewis, Lisa Marie Presley, Tim Burton and many more. Margaret has artworks at the United Nations and in Moscow’s Boloshi Theatre.

In 2014, Tim Burton made the movie “Big Eyes” about Margaret’s life and struggles. A book published in 2014 entitled “Citizen Keane: the big lies behind the big eyes” was written by Adam Parfrey and Cletus Nelson. Both were successful tellings of Margarets’ story.

Margaret Keanes’ story is unique. It is very satisfying to see that she gained control and recognition of her lives work. Sadly Margaret died earlier this year on June 22, at 94 years old, leaving all of us her beautiful style of art.

To read more about Margaret Keane see my sources below.

Keep well - Diana.

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