The Real Story: Walter and Margaret Keane and the Big Eyes Paintings

Posted on December 26, 2014 at 3:16 pm<a href="" target="_blank"></a>tps://
Amy Adams as Margaret Keane  Copyright Weinstein Company 2014
Copyright Weinstein Company 2014

The strangest parts of the story of Walter and Margaret Keane in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes are true. Perhaps the strangest of all is that the paintings — at the time thought to be painted by Walter Keane but ultimately proven to have been painted by Margaret Keane — were so wildly successful. In large part that was due to Walter Keane’s prodigious talents as a self-promoter. But it was not until he had Margaret’s paintings of the sad-eyed children that he had something that was promotable.

As shown in the film, Margaret Keane took her daughter and left her first husband. She met Walter Keane, also divorced, at an art fair in 1955. He told everyone he was the creator of her paintings and it was not until after they were divorced in the mid-60’s that she began to tell the truth.

Copyright Margaret Keane
Copyright Margaret Keane

While in the film Walter is played by German actor Christoph Waltz, who has an accent, in real life Walter was an American, born in Lincoln, Nebraska.

As noted in the film, Margaret Keane, now 87, still paints every day and she has an art gallery where fans can buy her work.  In an interview with the New York Times, she was still asking herself how she could have allowed her husband to take credit for her pictures.

Ms. Keane’s trajectory was in some ways a product of an era when women were encouraged to follow their husband’s lead, no matter the path. Although she had been painting since she was a girl, Ms. Keane believed a female artist wouldn’t sell as well as a man. She never doubted her talent — she paints to this day at her home in Napa and sells work at Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco — but her newfound confidence paralleled the rise of the women’s movement and an acceptance of outsider and pop artists. Deeply private and now a Jehovah’s Witness, she has an unlikely story placed her in the middle of a profound cultural shift.

The courtroom drama in real life unfolded as it does in the film, with Keane representing himself and making outrageous statements.  In the real case, the judge at one point required him to be gagged, which is not shown in the film.  But it did end up with both Keanes seated at easels in the courtroom and told to paint something.  Margaret still has the painting she did in court that day on her wall.  Its title: Exhibit 233.

Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes is by the journalist who wrote the first major expose of Keane’s lies.

Walter Keane’s nephew has spoken up in his defense, saying that his late mother, who was married to Keane’s brother, saw Walter Keane paint and that he produced Big Eyes paintings before he met Margaret. But he does not say that he ever saw his uncle paint, and has no evidence that he was Walter, and not Margaret, who did the paintings. Walter’s daughter from an earlier marriage says that her father was not the controlling man portrayed in the film and that the Big Eyes were his idea, though Margaret did the paintings, referring to her as his “artistic apprentice.” No one outside the family has disputed the findings of the court, however.

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The Real Story

Big Eyes

Posted on December 24, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Copyright Weinstein Company 2014
Copyright Weinstein Company 2014

In Woody Allen’s 1973 film “Sleeper,” set in a decadent future, Diane Keaton plays a superficial socialite who tries to think of the highest compliment she can give to an amateurish painting.  “Oh, it’s Keane! It’s pure Keane!” she exclaims.  Audiences of that time would recognize that reference to Walter Keane, responsible for the wildly if inexplicably popular “big eyes” paintings of sad-looking waifs.  When the concept of “kitsch” (cheap, popular, low-brow, and corny “art”) first came to the United States in the 1970’s, the Keane images were often used as an example.

Note that word “responsible.”  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) was “responsible” for the success of the paintings but he was not responsible for producing them.  It was revealed in a dramatic trial that while Walter Keane claimed credit as the sole artist behind the paintings (and prints and books), he had never put a brush to canvas.  Every one of the paintings was created by the only artist in the family, his wife, Margaret (Amy Adams).

Director Tim Burton, whose film about notoriously awful movie director Ed Wood is one of his best, has created another very good film about very bad art.  Like that film, “Big Eyes” is highly stylized, with heightened period detail exaggerated to reflect and comment on the art that it depicts.  At one point, in some distress, Margaret pushes a shopping cart through a grocery story, seeing the big eyes in the faces of everyone she looks at.

This film also draws on the 60’s era beginning stages of the women’s movement to anchor the story.  Margaret took her daughter and left her first husband at a time when most middle class women were expected to stay home and defer to their husbands.  She arrived in San Francisco at the dawn of the “consciousness raising” era, at the epicenter of movements advocating more focus on individual needs and personal fulfillment.  But Margaret still thought of herself as powerless in her relationship with Walter, in part because it was her nature and the way she was raised to defer and get along, partly because she was dependant on him.  She married him in a hurry because her ex-husband was threatening to sue her for custody at a time when single mothers who left their husbands and had to find jobs had very few rights.  “I’m a divorcee with a child,” she tells a friend.  “Walter is a blessing.”

It was also partly because she loved him, at first.

Margaret was pretty good at painting the pictures, but Walter was undeniably a world-class genius at selling them.  He was very good at marketing up: he sold to movie stars and appeared as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  He got a commission for a mural at the World’s Fair.  And he was even better at marketing down. When he noticed that people who could not afford the paintings were taking home posters from the gallery, he realized that there was an opportunity there.  “Would you rather sell one $500 painting or a million crappy reproduced posters?”  Pretty soon there were Keane images for every budget, with the originals in an art gallery and the copies in stores, alongside kitchen utensils and t-shirts.

Margaret signed her work “Keane,” and Walter slipped easily into taking credit for it.  He told Margaret (correctly) that no one took women artists seriously and that (also correct) that he was willing to do the kind of glad-handing and public appearances that she is not.  So, she stays locked in her studio painting all the time, increasingly isolated, finally even from her own sense of who she is.

The eerie look in the big eyes of the children in the paintings begins to seem haunting. Margaret realizes that she has to leave another husband. And she has to tell the truth.

Tim Burton has a story with the grotesquerie built in, not just the outlandish images but the turbulence of the era. Waltz has the showier role and delivers as a man whose ebullience mutates into a grandiosity from which there was no return. Adams, as the woman whose passion for expression grows — finally — into the ability to speak for herself with her voice as well as her brush.

Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing themes including emotional abuse, broken marriages, fraud, some sexual references, and brief strong language.

Family Discussion:  Who was responsible for the success of the big eye paintings?  Why did Walter lie and why did Margaret let him?

If you like this, try:  “Ed Wood” from the same director

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Based on a true story Drama
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