Margaret Keane: Mother of Big-Eye Art

Born Peggy Doris Hawkins in 1927, Margaret was sickly, shy, and often alone. Showing an early talent for art, she entertained herself by drawing which also helped fill in the gaps of loneliness. At the age of eleven, she began painting children with big eyes. Little did she know that her big-eye children would one day be a phenomenon, and she their famous creator.

Her first husband, Frank Ulbrich, fathered daughter Jane, born in 1950. Margaret’s brown-eyed infant daughter inspired her to create a portrait of her–with humongous eyes, of course.

In 1955 Margaret married Walter Keane, her second marriage. Margaret continued to perfect her unique big-eye style and in 1957, her work was exhibited at an outdoor show in Washington Square, Manhattan. Sadly, her husband Walter took credit for all the paintings! Walter, a savvy businessman, subsequently marketed her work in the form of mass-produced prints, which were sold in myriad department stores, as well as on the back pages of comic books and magazines.

Throughout the ’60s, the popularity of Keane’s “sad-eyed waifs” soared. Two of Margaret’s paintings were even featured in the 1962 movie, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” In the 1970s, there was a revival, triggered by the 1973 Woody Allen movie, “Sleeper,” in which Diane Keaton, when presented with a big-eye painting, exclaims, “It’s Keane, it’s pure Keane!” Of course, the whole time all this was going on, everyone thought that Walter was the creator of the paintings!

The popularity of Margaret’s big-eye kids inspired a slew of copycat artists, who all seemed to suddenly come out of the woodwork. Enter: Gig, Maio, Eden, Eve, Goji, Franca, Lee, Sherle, and more! Many of these artists copied Margaret’s trademark “sad-eyed waif” look, but some developed their own themes and styles. These artists hailed from a variety of countries, including the United States, the U.K., France, and Italy.

Popular themes for big-eye copy-cat artists included: harlequins, homeless waifs, ballerinas, baby-faced sophisticates, musicians, pajama and nightgown-clad cuties, sailors and fishermen, groovy dancers, clowns, “pity kitties,” “pity puppies,” bears, tigers, and other critters. The second Keane revival, which began in the late 1990s, is ongoing.

The fact that Walter took undue credit for creating the paintings that were rightfully Margaret’s (Walter claimed the more popular saucer-eyed characters, and Margaret the almond-eyed ones) was no doubt, a major factor in their divorce in 1965.

In a radio broadcast In 1970, Margaret announced to the world that she, and not Walter, was the real creator of the paintings, and challenged Walter to a paint-off. Not surprisingly, Walter was a no-show. The dispute continued to simmer over the years, reaching the breaking point in 1984, after Walter accused Margaret of taking credit for the paintings only because she thought he was dead. Margaret responded by taking her ex-husband to court for slander. When ordered by the judge to paint a picture of a big-eyed child, Margaret quickly complied, completing her painting in less than an hour, while Walter declined, due to a “sore shoulder,” rendering Margaret the victorious winner. Read The Full Story Here.

Today, the price for an original Keane can soar up into the thousands. What was once considered low-brow art for the masses is now highly regarded and avidly collected by well-known celebrities. Owning an original Keane is no longer scoffed at–in fact, it has become a status symbol–that is, for those who can afford one!

Celebrity Keane collectors include: Matthew Sweet, Marilyn Manson, Jerry Lewis, Robert Wagner, Tim Burton, and the late Dinah Shore, Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Dean Martin.

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