The Weird World of Walter and Margaret Keane

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The day after Christmas I went to see the new Tim Burton film Big Eyes starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as Margaret and Walter Keane (you can read my full review here on REBEAT!) In case you're not familiar with the Keanes, they were an artistic phenomenon in the late 1950s and early '60s, churning out paintings of forlorn looking children with large, penetrating, extraterrestrial-type eyes. Sometimes the kids would also be holding a kitty cat or dog. Walter Keane became famous when he decided to mass produce the portraits onto prints, calendars, and postcards. There was just one problem: not a single "big eye" was actually painted by Walter himself but by his wife, Margaret.

Basically, Margaret was an artist while Walter was a con artist. He was a real estate agent who passed himself off as a struggling artist and wined, dined, and seduced Margaret with tales of artistic training in Paris. According to the movie, Walter didn't even paint a single canvas of the street scenes that bore his name--and he also never told Margaret when he married her that he was divorced and had a daughter with his first wife. While Margaret locked herself away in her studio producing the paintings, Walter took all of the credit and the glory. After he started to get even more controlling and abusive, Margaret summoned the courage one day to take her daughter and leave in much the same way she had to leave her first husband. 

A few years after the Keanes divorced, Margaret--who was living in Hawaii by then--revealed to a local DJ that she was the artist of the big eyes all along. A few years after that, Margaret had a showdown in court with her megalomaniac ex-husband to sue him for the rights to all of the work that she had done. Walter acted as his own attorney, cross-examining himself in a display of larger-than-life showmanship that had made him famous when he started promoting his wife's art. The judge decided that the only way to determine who was telling the truth was to give each party one hour to produce a big eye painting in the courtroom. Margaret had no problem. Walter stalled, saying he was waiting for his creative muse to show up, then pathetically faked a shoulder injury. Margaret still paints today, while Walter passed away some years ago "broke and penniless" according to the film. 

Margaret's work when the Keanes were married was alienating--people either loved it or hated it. Many celebrities actually wanted the Keanes to paint their portraits, while art critics and gallery owners despised the big eyed children and dismissed them as a gimmick. It's a funny thing, though--as tacky as I think the paintings are, I will admit they kind of grew on me as I did research before the movie was released. Margaret's heart is in the right place; while the children she painted during the time she was married to Walter look hopeless, the work she's been producing in recent years shows optimism with her little boys and girls set in paradise, surrounded by wild animals. 

Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in a scene from Big Eyes. Image via the
As for the movie itself, I really enjoyed it and thought it was more entertaining and deserving of compliments then many harsh critics made it out to be. Yes, as Walter Keane, Waltz is a little over-the-top and turns in a borderline hammy performance, but as Margaret Keane recently told People magazine, watching Waltz was, to her, like seeing Walter alive again and she found it a bit stunning. This latest film from Burton is pretty much devoid of his usual trademark weirdness, except for a scene where Margaret is grocery shopping and every person in the store sports the same big eyes as her paintings. (Burton has long been a fan and collector of Keane's artwork.) Visually, the movie is gorgeous to look at and drips with the colors of the time period, which is why I recommend seeing it in the theater if you can. 

Here's some of the big eyes paintings that celebrities commissioned from the Keanes...creepy, no?

Jerry Lewis and his family (and fur children) were immortalized by Margaret Keane. 

Dean Martin's is really unsettling to me. The kid lurking behind his shoulder looks like an alien. 

Joan Crawford's crazy Mommy Dearest eyes lend themselves naturally to a big eye painting. Crawford was so enamored with the rendition that she put it on the cover of her book, "My Way of Life." 

I like Natalie Wood's portrait the's extremely flattering and shows Margaret Keane's talent. 

What do you think about Margaret Keane's artwork? 


  1. Thanks for sharing such an interesting article. Happy New Year!

  2. I had several prints I suppose, perhaps even knock offs, as a child. They were all on black velvet bought by my mother from a man who bought them wholesale in Mexico. Even if not Keane's, I still loved them and called them my doe-eyed girls.

  3. Rectangular prints were around the house as a kid; strangely attractive, I never knew what they represented (such as the harlequin aesthetic), and only much later learned they were pop art. Funny how it seems everyone followed the trends so closely. Thanks for the info.

  4. I've been anxious to see this movie--I remember these all too well, my grandmother had a pair of these (a boy and a girl) hanging in her bedroom for years--they always creeped me out!

    Ok I had no idea this woman also did celebrities--that photo of Natalie Wood is gorgeous! Good piece Pam :)

    1. I remember these as well my grandma had a painting that had bid eyed kids I’m assuming it was a reproduction I doubt she owned a actual Keane I also remember in the late sixties or early seventies someone must have copied Margrets style and applied to cat and dog painting known as pity puppy and pity kitty I remember my grandma buying those to I wonder who did the big eyed pup and kitty painting I would love know great movie

  5. The commissioned works are a surprise!

    This movie is on my list - I thought it looked interesting. Though I remember the "big eye" pictures but I knew absolutely zip about the artists.

  6. I wonder how all these celebrities were able to pose for the Keanes without somebody noticing that Margaret was the one doing the painting.

    Also kind of reminds me of this (awesome) Bouguereau painting which was eventually considered a bit kitschy, too.

  7. I'd heard about the paintings but I find them creepy. I had no idea Margaret did celebrities too! I sort of like the one of Natalie Woodd

  8. I love the one of Natalie Wood. It's simply beautiful and caught Natalie perfectly.

  9. Who painted the French street scenes he was selling?


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