Margaret Keane, the artist known for her ‘big eyes’ paintings, has died aged 94.
Keane was embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to her work after her husband claimed credit, a story told by Tim Burton in the 2014 film Big Eyes. Her daughter Jane Swigert confirmed her death at home in Napa, California, as a result. of heart failure.
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins, she studied design in New York City before finding work painting baby cribs in the 1950s. She soon moved on to her own art before meeting Walter Keane in 1955. He discovered her signature paintings, children with saucer eyes looking sad, and began selling them to comedy clubs, taking credit.
After convincing her it was a more realistic solution, she agreed to the deception, telling the Guardian in 2014 that it “torn” her apart. In the 1960s, the paintings were ubiquitous, with stars like Dean Martin and Joan Crawford buying the originals. Andy Warhol said at the time: “I think what Keane has done is just amazing. It has to be good. If it was bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
But art critics were unimpressed, and in 1964, at the World’s Fair, a large-scale painting called Tomorrow Forever was called “tacky hacking” in the New York Times before being promptly removed. “When people said it was just sentimental stuff, it really hurt me,” she said. “Some people couldn’t even look at it. I don’t know why, just a violent reaction.”
The couple divorced shortly after, and in 1970, she revealed that she was the real-life performer. In 1986, she sued both Walter Keane and USA Today for claiming he was the one behind the paintings. She won the case after a “paint-off” in court, but never received her $4 million in damages because Walter Keane was bankrupt.
Her story was later turned into the 2014 film Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams, leading to a brief resurgence in popularity for her work. She called watching the film a “traumatic” experience.
Film co-writer Larry Karaszewski paid tribute to her on Facebook. “Grateful that we all got to spend so much time getting to know her beautiful ghost,” he wrote. “It took 10 years to get Big Eyes on screen. But her story of surviving abuse was important. She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”
In 2018, the Los Angeles Art Show awarded her a Lifetime Achievement Award during a retrospective of her work. She called it “a real blessing.”
Her death was reported today on her official Facebook page. “We are saddened to announce that Margaret Keane, ‘The Mother of Big Eyes, our Queen, a Modern Master and Legend’ passed away peacefully Sunday morning at her home in Napa, CA, aged 94.”