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Margaret Keane: Mother of Big-Eye Art

"The Stray" by Margaret Keane 1962

"The Stray" by Margaret Keane 1962

Who Invented Big-Eye Art?

Margaret Keane, a famous American artist and pop culture icon, is universally known as the "mother of big-eye art."

In the 1950s, Margaret's sad-eye waif paintings captured the public's heart and created a sensation; mass-marketed prints of these works became wildly popular and were sold almost everywhere, starting in the 1960s and continuing into the '70s. The popularity of her big-eyed children inspired many copycat artists to emulate her kitschy style.

Her legacy still lives today. I am one of a number of today's artists who still look to Margaret Keane for inspiration; as a present-day practitioner of the big-eye art style, I draw inspiration from Keane's giant-orbed children, whose hypnotic gazes perpetually reside in the back of my mind, in some way touching every single painting I have created.

On June 24, 2022, Margaret Keane passed away at the age of 94. She will be sorely missed.

Margaret Keane at work

Margaret Keane at work

"The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul."

— Margaret Keane

Margaret Keane: A Biography

Born Peggy Doris Hawkins in Tennessee 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.

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 that 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. Her work had a revival in the 1970s, 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!"

The whole time all this was going on, everyone thought that Walter was the creator of the paintings!

The popularity of Margaret's big-eyed kids inspired a slew of copycat artists who seemed to 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 credit for creating Margaret's paintings (Walter said he created the more popular saucer-eyed characters and Margaret made 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 boiling point in 1984, when 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 may soar 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, Robert Wagner, Tim Burton, Jerry Lewis, Dinah Shore, Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Dean Martin.

Margaret with first husband Frank Ulrich painting ties at the fair

Margaret with first husband Frank Ulrich painting ties at the fair

"Painting a Girl" by Margaret Keane 1963

"Painting a Girl" by Margaret Keane 1963

Margaret and Walter Keane

Margaret and Walter Keane were a very successful team in the 1960s and '70s, pulling six figures yearly, which was a big sum of money in their day.

In the public's eyes, the Keanes seemed to have the kind of life most people could only dream about: money, prestige, and fame galore. But behind closed doors, Margaret was suffering deeply; in order to express herself, she transferred her feelings to canvas, painting desolate and crying children.

The public had no inkling of the the heart-breaking and shocking secrets that were being hidden behind closed doors at the Keane house. . . .

Margaret Keane on Her Life As a Famous Artist

Margaret Keane on Her Life As a Famous Artist

Introspective and humble, Margaret Keane endured more than her share of anguish and disappointment in life, starting from early childhood. But, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, Margaret always managed to land on her feet, emerging from each setback even stronger and more determined than before.

Margaret's perseverance and faith in God accompanied her through many a rocky road. At the time of her marriage to Walter, her paintings very much reflected her feelings of hopelessness and desperation. Read about it here in Margaret's own words: "Margaret Keane: My Life as a Famous Artist."

"Survival" by Margaret Keane 1964

"Survival" by Margaret Keane 1964

This painting, appropriately named "Survival," depicts a child desperately searching for a way out as burning fire and billowing smoke engulf him.

In creating this painting, Margaret seems to be expressing her own emotions of hopelessness, helplessness, and desperation after enduring years of pain and abuse at the hands of Walter. The painting was created shortly before their divorce in 1965.

Margaret Keane's "Children" Are Reflections of Her Own Life

Margaret Keane's depictions of big-eyed children have undergone many transitions over the years, reflecting her own life. At first, the children were desolate, lonely, and often crying. Over the years, as Margaret changed, so did her "children."

During her marriage to Walter, Margaret was forced to create paintings behind locked doors, painting up to eighteen hours a day, so no one would ever know that Walter wasn't the true artist. Walter, who professed to have Mafia connections, threatened to have Margaret and her daughters bumped off if she failed to comply. Margaret was scared to death.

Margaret's life changed for the better when she divorced Walter in 1965 and moved to Hawaii. When she proved in court that all of the paintings were done by her, it empowered her, giving her hope for the future.

In 1974, when Margaret became a Jehovah's witness, it totally changed her life, giving her strength and courage. Margaret changed from shy and fearful to outgoing and even talkative.

Notice the changes in the children? As Margaret became happier, so did the children. What about their surroundings? Notice how dingy, dark, and depressing changed to sunny, bright, and happy?

Margaret's "children," like her, were sad and desperate. As Margaret found hope and happiness, so did the children. Her website now advertises her work as having "tears of joy" or "tears of happiness."

Her newest works reflect that joy. The children no longer cower in filthy alleyways or timidly peek out of abandoned buildings. They now live in a world of perpetual sunshine, fun, and frolic--where trolley cars, rainbows, hot air balloons, and friendly wild animals take them anywhere their little hearts desire. RIP sad-eyed waifs and your beloved creator, Margaret Keane.

Margaret Keane's Amazing Fashion Portraits of Women

In 1999, Margaret Keane painted high fashion portraits of girls draped in clothing designed by Oscar de la Renta, Christian Lacroix, Carolina Herrera, Dolce & Gabbana, Gianfranco Ferre, and John Galliano. The fashions could be purchased in stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus. All of the girls sported those fabulous voluminous eyes, which are Margaret's trademark. You'll find more of Keane's fashion portraits here.

Margaret Keane's Amazing Fashion Portraits of Women

Margaret Keane's Amazing Fashion Portraits of Women

Margaret Keane's Celebrity Portraits

Margaret Keane's art is a hot commodity among celebrities, who have avidly snatched it up over the years. Some famous folks have even gone a step further by commissioning Keane to capture their essence in her trademark goggle-eyed style.

  • Natalie Wood. One such celebrity who had the honor of becoming immortalized in Keane's saucer-eyed style is the late Natalie Wood, former child star and glamorous Hollywood movie star of the 1950s—1980s. Wood, who first became obsessed with Margaret Keane's sad-eyed waif paintings in 1959, commissioned Keane to paint portraits of her at different stages of her life—as a pigtailed child clutching her dog and as a glamorous movie star of 21.
  • Jerry Lewis. In keeping with his profession as a comedian, Margaret Keane opted to paint the Jerry Lewis family as harlequins. The painting took two months to complete.
  • Joan Crawford. There's an interesting story behind the late Joan Crawford's portrait: Joan, an admirer of Keane's work, organized a star-studded opening for the Keanes in New York. Later, Crawford featured two of Margaret's paintings in her movie, "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane." When Crawford commissioned Margaret to paint her portrait, she later added a picture of it to the cover of her autobiography. Strangely, the last time the portrait was seen by Margaret, it had been mysteriously scratched beyond repair. Two unanswered questions remain: who did it and why?
  • Other celebrities immortalized by Keane include Kim Novak and Tim Burton's former girlfriend, Lisa, and her dog, Poppy.