American artist Margaret Keanewhose six-decade painting career was blocked for years by her husband, who claimed to have made the works himself, died Sunday, June 26, at their Napa Valley home at the age of 94. The cause was heart failure.
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins, the Nashville-raised painter rose to worldwide fame for her “Big Eyed Waif” (or simply “Big Eyes”) paintings. Her characters’ saucer-shaped gazes reportedly stemmed from the artist’s childhood hearing problems, which forced her to look for clues in faces.
Keane began painting wide-eyed angels as a child at her family’s Methodist church. At age 10, she enrolled in art classes at the Watkins Institute and at 18 attended the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City.
But she only gained recognition for her art years after her second husband, Walter Keane, rose to fame on prime-time television by selling her paintings as his own.
The couple lived in North Beach, San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s when they signed their paintings with their shared last name. Walter’s manipulations marred Keane’s first attempt at an authentic painting career: at the height of his fake fame, her real works found appeal across America. Patrons included Natalie Wood and the Kennedys.
Interest in Keane’s work soared in 2014 when admirer and filmmaker Tim Burton adapted her life story into a live-action film titled Big eyes, with Amy Adams. The film helped elevate her legacy to cinematic proportions.
Though beautiful photographs of the afternoon Keane spent teaching Adams to paint suggested a sweet narrative, the effectiveness of Burton’s film was reflected in the artist’s difficulty in viewing it.
“It was a very emotional, traumatic experience when I first saw the film,” Keane said at an early screening the Hollywood reporter.
In 1964, Walter Keane’s painting of a sweeping staircase full of waifs was submitted to the New York World’s Fair. Chosen as the focal point for the education pavilion, the work was blasted by a New York Times Critics, after which the selection was withdrawn due to “bad taste and low standards”. (Andy Warhol remarked, “I think what Keane did is great! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”)
But Keane’s creative vision didn’t go down that easily. In 1965, she divorced Walter and confiscated her own history by challenging him to a paint-off in 1970 to prove herself once and for all.
He couldn’t bring himself to attend and complained of a sore shoulder. Keane painted her piece anyway and showed up de facto Winner. It finally closed in 1986 when a judge ordered them to paint in the courtroom.
Throughout her life, Keane’s portraits of women and animals carried the edge of surrealism. Big eyes united every work, no matter whether it was about mothers, puppies or sparkling young women. She willingly synthesized her female perspective with the male gaze: Keane’s official biography names Amedeo Modigliani as his most important inspiration alongside Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Leonardo da Vinci, Gustav Klimt, Edgar Degas, Picasso, Sandro Botticelli and Paul Gauguin.
The biography also cites Keane himself as an inspiration for cultural phenomena like the Powerpuff Girls.
Keane maintained the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco and painted every day into her last years. After Burton’s film introduced a new generation to her work, Adams won a Golden Globe, Christoph Waltz was nominated for Best Actor for the role of Walter, and the film’s title track by Lana Del Rey was nominated for Best Original Song. Keane herself received a lifetime achievement award at the Los Angeles Art Show in 2018.
She is survived by her daughter, Jane Swihert; five stepchildren from her third marriage to Dan McGuire; and eight step-grandchildren.
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