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.

Related Tags:


The Real Story

13 Replies to “The Real Story: Walter and Margaret Keane and the Big Eyes Paintings”

  1. walter keane,when he was 84, romanced my poor 46 year old sister–as an heiress, he was very interested in her portfolio and wouldn’t take no for an answer–he was still bragging about painting the keane pictures.

  2. Do your research! And if you are too lazy, just keep yourself posted to upcoming media and allow your one sided self to face the truth.

    1. Mr. De Grandis, if you have some evidence to rebut the court’s findings or the detailed interviews with all of the parties, I would be happy to review it. But insult is not argument. If you cannot provide any credible evidence to the contrary, I have to assume that it is you who have not done your research.

      1. Nell, No insult was intended. More frustration then anything. The simple fact that the screenwriters of Big Eyes themselves, were quoted stating that they bought the rights to Margaret’s story because they “believed her”. The frustration for me is that there ARE relatives of Walter Keane that are still alive and were NOT contacted by them, or any author of articles written. Fortunately, they are now speaking out in defense of Walter. Susan is Walter’s oldest daughter who recently was quoted defending the accusations of him being abusive and controlling. On Friday, January 2nd of this year, (Page D14 of the LA Times) you can find an interview with Billy Keane (Walter’s Nephew), who grew up around Walter. Billy’s parents owned the Frame Shop that handled the framing and distribution of the Keane paintings. Possible source for some facts?? There is a photo that you can search out that was published which clearly shows BOTH Walter and Maraget sitting next to each other, both painting a Big Eye. Staged, you might ask? Why in the world, if Walter was so threatening about her telling the truth that she was the actual painter, would he allow a picture of her painting along side him. I will attempt to upload in my comments. Margaret was clearly an amazing painter on her own, but also with the same amazing ability to capture the style of Walter and create Big Eyes of her own. It would have been fair to state in a movie or article, THAT possibility.

        1. Well, terms like “lazy” and “one-sided” are generally considered to be insulting, but I accept your apology/clarification. The overwhelming evidence is that Margaret created the Big Eyes and did the paintings, as proved in court but as documented in the detailed, well-researched book about the Keanes. If he could paint, why was he unable to create a single brush stroke in front of witnesses? If he created the concept of the Big Eyes, why did he exclusively produce street scenes before he met her? Yes, I think the photo was staged. And that the family members may have their own agendas. But I am glad to have you raise these questions so that readers can draw their own conclusions.

  3. Who interviewed Margaret Keane when she revealed the thruth about the paintings? It seems unreal to believe that she forgot who was the interviewer/ That was perhaps the most importan moment of her life if that is true. It is also stange that the movie showed the interview in Hawai. Somebody is hiding something. Can you clear that?

  4. Very bitter people, Walter’s kids are…….He was going nowhere until he started claiming he painted the “kids” …. He thought her work was of no value…. until people began to notice Margaret’s work.

Comments are closed.

THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2024, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik