Margaret Keane: Big Eyes

Margaret Keane: big eyes

Big Eyes is an upcoming film directed by the eccentric visionary Tim Burton. The film tells the incredible story of American artist Margaret Keane, her scheming husband Walter Keane, and one of the greatest ruses of all time: He was a con artist. She was the real artist.

Margaret Keane’s melancholy portraits of big-eyed children became phenomenally successful in the 1950’s and 1960’s—fans and collectors included Natalie Wood, Andy Warhol, Joan Crawford, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, and even the United Nations itself. But Margaret received no recognition for her unique style. She painted big-eyed child after big-eyed child in her studio, while her husband Walter simply signed his name to the bottom of each canvas. Walter was a savvy marketer, and soon the Big Eyes prints were mass-produced and sold in hardware stores and gas stations worldwide. Walter himself became a talk show fixture and a household name, even bragging to TIME magazine, “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.”

In 1986, Margaret shocked the world when she announced herself as the true artist behind Big Eyes. She sued Walter for the rights to sell, sign, and distribute her own paintings. The case is culminated in a dramatic courtroom paint-off: Margaret painted a big-eyed child in 54 minutes flat; Walter claimed a shoulder injury and refused to pick up the brush. Margaret was awarded $4 million and the rightful ownership of her own works.

Though the Big Eyes style was generally considered by art critics to be sickeningly sentimental and repetitive, these pieces were created at a poignant and important moment in history. Though empathy for the world’s children may seem commonplace today, it was uncommon in the 1960’s. The United Nations General Assembly had only recently enacted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, in 1959. Child abuse, considered a taboo subject, was addressed by the American Medical Association for the first very time in 1962.

When asked about her motivation, Margaret says simply, “Children do have big eyes. When I’m doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Big Eyes is written by the acclaimed screenwriting team behind Ed Wood. Five-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams plays Margaret Keane; Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz plays Walter Keane.

These paintings are on view from the Triton Museum’s permanent collection.
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes will be released on Christmas Day at AMC Theaters.

Margaret Keane: big Eyes
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