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Margaret Keane: Mother of Big-Eye Art

As a child in the '60s, I witnessed first hand the popularity of Margaret Keane's endearing art. I am still a fan today!

Who is Margaret Keane?

Margaret Keane, a famous American artist and pop culture icon, is universally known as the "mother of big-eye art."

In the 1950s, Margaret's sad-eye waif paintings captured the public's hearts, creating a sensation; mass-marketed prints of these works became wildly popular, and were sold almost everywhere, starting in the 1960s, and continuing into the '70s.

The popularity of Margaret's big-eye children inspired many a copycat artist to emulate her kitschy style, and her legacy still lives on today.

I am one of a number of today's artists who still look to Margaret Keane for inspiration; as a present-day practitioner of the big-eye art style, I draw volumes of inspiration from the poignant renderings of Keane's giant-orbed children, whose hypnotic gaze perpetually resides in the back of my mind, touching in some way, every single painting that I have the pleasure of creating.

On June 24, 2022, Margaret Keane passed away at the age of 94. She will be sorely missed.

"The Stray" by Margaret Keane 1962

"The Stray" by Margaret Keane 1962

Visit Margaret Keane's Official Website

"The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul."

— Margaret Keane

Margaret Keane on Her Life and "Big Eyes"

"Big Eyes" premiere, December 25, 2014

"Big Eyes," the Tim Burton produced biopic detailing the life of Margaret Keane, premiered on Christmas day, 2014.

Big Eyes, which had been in the works since 2009, underwent several cast changes. Originally, Kate Hudson was in the starring role as Margaret, then Reese Witherspoon was cast in the role. After Tim Burton took over as director, he cast Amy Adams (a four-time Oscar nominee) and Christoph Waltz (a two-time Oscar winner) in the roles of Margaret and Walter. The film is distributed by the Weinstein Company.

This tribute to American artist and pop icon Margaret Keane is long overdue. I bought the movie when it was released on DVD and love it!

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Big Eyes DVD--Order Your Copy Now!

Big Eyes Official Trailer

Official Audio From "Big Eyes" by Lana Del Rey

Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes

In 1992, Adam Parfrey set out to track down Walter Keane for a San Diego Reader cover story; in the process, he uncovered some shocking facts. Walter Keane, the "artist" he attributed to the creation of the big-eyed waif paintings, turned out to be little more than a con artist. Parfrey's story, which was reprinted in Juxtapoz magazine, inspired a Margaret Keane exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum. Now renowned director Tim Burton is filming a movie about the Keanes, titled, Big Eyes, which is set for release in 2014.

Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, is an expansion of Parfrey's article, supplemented with all sorts of fascinating biographical and sociological details in addition to photographs, color reproductions, appendices with legal documents and more.

The Margaret Keane Phenomenon

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How it All Began

Margaret with first husband Frank Ulrich painting ties at the fair

Margaret with first husband Frank Ulrich painting ties at the fair

Born Peggy Doris Hawkins in 1927, Margaret was sickly, shy, and often alone. Showing an early talent for art, she entertained herself by drawing which also helped fill in the gaps of loneliness. At the age of eleven, she began painting children with big eyes. Little did she know that her big-eye children would one day be a phenomenon, and she their famous creator.

Her first husband, Frank Ulbrich, fathered daughter Jane, born in 1950. Margaret's brown-eyed infant daughter inspired her to create a portrait of her--with humongous eyes, of course.

In 1955 Margaret married Walter Keane, her second marriage. Margaret continued to perfect her unique big-eye style and in 1957, her work was exhibited at an outdoor show in Washington Square, Manhattan. Sadly, her husband Walter took credit for all the paintings! Walter, a savvy businessman, subsequently marketed her work in the form of mass-produced prints, which were sold in myriad department stores, as well as on the back pages of comic books and magazines.

Throughout the '60s, the popularity of Keane's "sad-eyed waifs" soared. Two of Margaret's paintings were even featured in the 1962 movie, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." In the 1970s, there was a revival, triggered by the 1973 Woody Allen movie, "Sleeper," in which Diane Keaton, when presented with a big-eye painting, exclaims, "It's Keane, it's pure Keane!" Of course, the whole time all this was going on, everyone thought that Walter was the creator of the paintings!

The popularity of Margaret's big-eye kids inspired a slew of copycat artists, who all seemed to suddenly come out of the woodwork. Enter: Gig, Maio, Eden, Eve, Goji, Franca, Lee, Sherle, and more! Many of these artists copied Margaret's trademark "sad-eyed waif" look, but some developed their own themes and styles. These artists hailed from a variety of countries, including the United States, the U.K., France, and Italy.

Popular themes for big-eye copy-cat artists included: harlequins, homeless waifs, ballerinas, baby-faced sophisticates, musicians, pajama and nightgown-clad cuties, sailors and fishermen, groovy dancers, clowns, "pity kitties," "pity puppies," bears, tigers, and other critters. The second Keane revival, which began in the late 1990s, is ongoing.

The fact that Walter took undue credit for creating the paintings that were rightfully Margaret's (Walter claimed the more popular saucer-eyed characters, and Margaret the almond-eyed ones) was no doubt, a major factor in their divorce in 1965.

In a radio broadcast In 1970, Margaret announced to the world that she, and not Walter, was the real creator of the paintings, and challenged Walter to a paint-off. Not surprisingly, Walter was a no-show. The dispute continued to simmer over the years, reaching the breaking point in 1984, after Walter accused Margaret of taking credit for the paintings only because she thought he was dead. Margaret responded by taking her ex-husband to court for slander. When ordered by the judge to paint a picture of a big-eyed child, Margaret quickly complied, completing her painting in less than an hour, while Walter declined, due to a "sore shoulder," rendering Margaret the victorious winner. Read The Full Story Here.

Today, the price for an original Keane can soar up into the thousands. What was once considered low-brow art for the masses is now highly regarded and avidly collected by well-known celebrities. Owning an original Keane is no longer scoffed at--in fact, it has become a status symbol--that is, for those who can afford one!

Celebrity Keane collectors include: Matthew Sweet, Marilyn Manson, Jerry Lewis, Robert Wagner, Tim Burton, and the late Dinah Shore, Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Dean Martin.

Margaret Keane at work

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Margaret Keane on Her Life As a Famous Artist

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Introspective and humble, Margaret Keane endured more than her share of anguish and disappointment in life, starting from early childhood. But, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Margaret always managed to land on her feet, emerging from each setback even stronger and more determined than before.

Margaret's perseverance and faith in God accompanied her through many a rocky road. At the time of her marriage to Walter, her paintings very much reflected her feelings of hopelessness and desperation. Read about it here in Margaret's own words: "Margaret Keane: My Life as a Famous Artist."

''In the beginning we thought they were weird and cool and kind of scary. But as we looked at them and heard more about them, we fell in love with them. Something emotional is happening in them, which is why they make people uncomfortable.''

— Matthew Sweet (on Margaret Keane's paintings)

The Secret Life of Margaret Keane

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Margaret and Walter Keane were a very successful team in the 1960s and '70s, pulling six figures yearly, which was a big sum of money in their day.

In the public's eyes, the Keanes seemed to have the kind of life most people could only dream about: money, prestige, and fame galore. But behind closed doors, Margaret was suffering deeply; in order to express herself, she transferred her feelings to canvas, painting desolate and crying children.

The public had no inkling of the the heart-breaking and shocking secrets that were being hidden behind closed doors at the Keane house. . . .

The Survival of Margaret Keane

"Survival" by Margaret Keane 1964

"Survival" by Margaret Keane 1964

This painting, appropriately named "Survival," depicts a child desperately searching for a way out as burning fire and billowing smoke engulf him.

In creating this painting, Margaret seems to be expressing her own emotions of hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation after enduring years of pain and abuse at the hands of Walter. The painting was created shortly before their divorce in 1965.

Margaret Keane's "Children" are Reflections of Her Own Life

Margaret Keane's big-eye "children" have undergone many transitions throughout the years, reflecting her own life. At first, the children were desolate, lonely, and often crying. Over the years, as Margaret changed, so did her "children."

During her marriage to Walter, Margaret was forced to create paintings behind locked doors so no one would ever know that Walter wasn't the true artist. Walter, who professed to having Mafia connections, threatened to have Margaret and her daughters knocked off if she failed to comply. Margaret was scared to death.

Margaret's life changed for the better when she divorced Walter, in 1965, and moved to Hawaii. When she proved in court that all of the paintings were done by her, it empowered her, giving her hope for the future.

In 1974, when Margaret became a Jehovah's witness, it totally changed her life, giving her strength and courage. Margaret changed from shy and fearful to outgoing and even talkative.

Notice the changes in the children? As Margaret became happier, so did the children. What about their surroundings? Notice how dingy, dark, and depressing changed to sunny, bright, and happy?

Margaret's "children," like her, were sad and desperate. As Margaret found hope and happiness, so did the children. Her website now advertises her work as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness."

"The First Grail" by Margaret Keane

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"Steep Climb" by Margaret Keane

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"Lost" by Margaret Keane

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"Rejected" by Margaret Keane 1962

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"Alone" by Margaret Keane

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"Sad Clown" by Margaret Keane 1962

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"Watching" by Margaret Keane

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"Little Ones" by Margaret Keane 1962

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"The Reluctant Ballerina" by Margaret Keane 1963

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"The Lookout" by Margaret Keane

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"A Boy and His Dog" by Margaret Keane 1962

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"Bedtime" by Margaret Keane

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"In the Garden" by Margaret Keane

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"At the Fair" by Margaret Keane 1962

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"The Gypsies" by Margaret Keane

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"Beach Ball" by Margaret Keane

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"The Ballet Class" by Margaret Keane 1964

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"Calico Cat" by Margaret Keane 1964

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"Painting a Girl" by Margaret Keane 1963

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"The Ballerina" by Margaret Keane

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"Grant Avenue San Francisco" by Margaret Keane

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"Peace on Earth" by Margaret Keane 1961

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"Innocence" by Margaret Keane

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"Otter Delight" by Margaret Keane

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"Weekend Ball Game" by Margaret Keane

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"Hawaiian Kingdom" by Margaret Keane

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"What Shall I Do Today?" by Margaret Keane

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"Who Says Animals Can't Fly?" by Margaret Keane

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"Boston Terrier" by Margaret Keane

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"Tiger Prince" by Margaret Keane

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"Lovable Pug" by Margaret Keane

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Oil painting of a dog by Margaret Keane

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"Escape" by Margaret Keane

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"The Longest Strand" by Margaret Keane 1964

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"Edge of Summer" by Margaret Keane 1960

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"Harlequins Three" by Margaret Keane 1964

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"Living Doll" by Margaret Keane

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"The Freshmen" by Margaret Keane

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"Growing Up" by Margaret Keane

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"Destiny" by Margaret Keane

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"Inflated Eggs" by Margaret Keane 1963

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"Double Draw" by Margaret Keane 1963

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"Silent Conscience" by Margaret Keane 1963

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"Circle" by Margaret Keane

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"Jesters Three" by Margaret Keane 1969

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"Madame Butterfly" by Margaret Keane

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"Princess of the Dawn" by Margaret Keane

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"The Grape Dancer" by Margaret Keane

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Margaret Keane's Amazing Fashion Portraits of Women

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In 1999, Margaret Keane painted high fashion portraits of girls draped in clothing designed by Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Carolina Herrera, Dolce & Gabbana, Gianfranco Ferre, and John Galliano. The fashions could be purchased in stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus. All of the girls sported those fabulous voluminous eyes which are Margaret's trademark.

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Margaret Keane Captures Natalie Wood's Essence on Canvas

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Margaret Keane's art is a hot commodity among celebrities, who have avidly snatched it up over the years. Some famous folks have even gone a step further by commissioning Keane to capture their essence in her trademark goggle-eyed style.

One such celebrity who had the honor of becoming immortalized in Keane's saucer-eyed style is the late Natalie Wood, former child star and glamorous Hollywood movie star of the 1950s--1980s.

Wood, who first became obsessed with Margaret Keane's sad-eyed waif paintings in 1959, commissioned Keane to paint portraits of her at different stages of her life--as a pigtailed child clutching her dog, and, as a glamorous movie star of 21.

Other celebrities immortalized by Keane include: Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Jerry Lewis, and Tim Burton's former girlfriend, Lisa, and her dog, Poppy.

Comedian Jerry Lewis' Family is Captured on Canvas by Keane

"Family" (the Jerry Lewis family) by Margaret Keane

"Family" (the Jerry Lewis family) by Margaret Keane

In keeping with his profession as a comedian, Margaret Keane opted to paint the Jerry Lewis family as harlequins. The painting took two months to complete.

Joan Crawford's Keane Painting--Destroyed by a Mystery Person?

Actress Joan Crawford with Her Portrait by Margaret Keane

Actress Joan Crawford with Her Portrait by Margaret Keane