Revisiting ‘Big Eyes’ Reminds Us of a Groundbreaking Artist

Margaret Keane is known for her “waif paintings,” characterized by their large, dark, moist eyes. The massive round voids make the work very recognizable and tend to elicit strong responses in viewers. Some people find them moving. Some find them disturbing, including Tim Burton, who was inspired by them to make the movie Big Eyes, which tells Keane’s incredible story.

Big Eyes portrays how Margaret Keane’s work was attributed for many years to her husband, Walter Keane. When Margaret started to paint her big-eyed waifs, Walter recognized their potential, and start to sell them as his own. 

Margaret Keane was not at all comfortable with the social dynamics involved in building an art career. She said in an interview with Life Magazine that when Walter would go to sell the paintings at a night club in San Francisco, she was happy to stay home and paint for as many as sixteen hours a day. “It suited me fine,” she said. “I was extremely timid and shy.”

This setup made it possible for Walter to pass off the paintings of his own without Margaret’s knowledge until it was too late. His career depended on this lie, and he pressured and, later, threatened Margaret into silence.

Jan Huttner commented on Margaret Keane’s story in her review of Big Eyes when it was first released:

I am sure that Margaret Keane never thought of herself as a “Feminist,” and even today, at the age of 87, she still might reject that label. But the more you know about the early 1960s—about Betty Friedan and “The Problem That Has No Name,” Audrey Hepburn as the gamine Holly Golightly, etc, etc, etc—the more you will see in Big Eyes, and the more you will understand about how the choices some women made in the 1960s provided the foundation for who we are today.

Amy Adams plays Margaret in the biopic, and her sensitive, earnest demeanor is a perfect accompaniment to the imploring sadness of Keane’s work. The painter and the actress who played her appeared together for an interview with the New York Times in 2014. “Looking back, how could I have been so stupid?” Margaret asked. “You weren’t stupid,” Amy Adams replied. “It was just something that happened, you became complicit in it, and there was that living within that dynamic.”

After divorcing Walter in 1965, Margaret Keane started to speak out and demand the rights to her own paintings. In a court-ordered “paint off” decades later, which Walter refused to attend, Margaret painted one of her signature children live and won the legal rights to her work once and for all.

Margaret Keane’s relationship with the mid-century American art world was not smooth. Critics often dismissed the waif paintings as “kitsch,” most sharply in the New York Times critic’s response to her famous mural of many children for UNICEF.

Yet Keane’s work has made her one of the most successful living artists in the world starting in the early 1960s. Margaret Keane is still painting today, and the largest collection of her work is on view in her gallery in San Francisco.

© Amelie Lasker (5/20/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Amy Adams and Margaret Keane.

Bottom Photo: Margaret Keane’s “Home Alone.”

Photo Credits: Sam Comen for the New York Times; Keane Eyes Gallery.

FF2 Bonus Content:

Review of Big Eyes.

Jan Huttner’s commentary on Big Eyes and the male gaze.

Tags: FF2 Media, Support Women Artists Now, SWAN Day 2020

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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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