‘Big Eyes’ World of Margaret Keane Always Authentic Then & Now

Big Eyes Margaret Keane and Amy Adams

Margaret Keane, one of the most successful living artists since the 1960s, celebrates her 94th birthday today! Keane is known for her paintings of large-eyed, childlike figures, which ultimately inspired the 2014 Tim Burton film, Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams in a dazzling performance as Margaret Keane. 

When Margaret was a child growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, her eardrum was permanently damaged during an operation, leading to partial deafness. In order to better understand the people around her, Margaret learned to watch their eyes. This focus influenced her aesthetic as an artist across the length of her career and is visible in her portraits of women, children and animals. Now, Margaret resides in Napa County (CA) after living in Hawaii for 25 years.

her husband Walter began taking credit for her work in the 1950s

Although her current lifestyle allows her to relax, her days were not always so tranquil. Drama consumed a large portion of Margaret’s adult life as a painter when, unbeknownst to her, her husband Walter (played in Big Eyes by Christoph Waltz) began taking credit for her work in the 1950s. When she first discovered his ruse, Margaret was frightened, so she continues to support Walter while he deceived the public. In 1970, she broke her silence and announced on a radio broadcast that she was the original artist. 

This resulted in lawsuits championed by Margaret Keane against her now ex-husband and news sources that claimed Walter Keane was the real artist. At the trial, the judge arranged for both Margaret and Walter to have a “paint-off,” meaning they would each go head-to-head in creating a “big-eyed” painting live for the courtroom. Margaret finished her portrait in 53 minutes. Walter did not even show up. 

In the 1990s, Tim Burton commissioned a piece from Margaret Keane for his girlfriend. Decades later, he directed a film about her life, Big Eyes, which chronicled the aforementioned events, and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress (Amy Adams). Jan Lisa Huttner’s review of the film noted that Amy Adams gave “far and away the greatest female performance to be seen anywhere [in 2014]” and co-star Christoph Waltz “ is so endearing—even in his blackest moments—… we can see into the heart of this complex character.”

As for Margaret, Jan wrote, “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.”

Happy Birthday, Margaret Keane! You can read more about her story in Amelie Lasker’s article on the groundbreaking artist here

Margaret Keane Big Eyes Painting


© Anna Nappi (9/15/21) Special for FF2 Media


Featured photo: Margaret Keane and Amy Adams. Permission to post received from Big Eyes publicist.

Bottom photo: “Margaret Keane” by rocor is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Tags: Amelie Lasker, Amy Adams, Anna Nappi, Big Eyes, Jan Lisa Huttner, Margaret Keane, The 60s, Tim Burton, Women painters

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Anna is currently a senior at Brandeis University studying Film, Journalism, and Psychology. At Brandeis, she writes for the student newspaper and is the undergraduate degree representative of the Journalism program. From theaters to museums to concert halls, she loves exploring the art world in Boston as well as in her Maine hometown. Anna is passionate about FF2’s mission and excited for the opportunity to work alongside a wonderful team dedicated to supporting women artists.
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