Terrified sweet eyes, watching every move of the viewer from the canvas, melted hearts of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain: paintings signed with the Keane surname were hanged in the main office of UNICEF and won the attention of Moscow dignitaries. Both the great and famous of the time, such as Joan Crawford, and housewives or students were buying what they could afford – be it an original canvas or postcards to hang on a fridge or locker. However, no one had a clue about the fraud behind the big-eyed children of Walter Keane, which was proved years later with a paint-off.
Although people quickly surrendered to the magic of the big eyes, the critics were not always friendly. In 1964, New York Times critic John Canaday called one of Margaret’s images “tasteless”. But she had knowledge, craft and experience to defend herself. She often mentioned that her
childhood was marked by two great obsessions – art and spirituality. Sickly and shy, she spent a lot of time dwelling on difficult matters. In a TV interview in 2012, she admitted that she always loved to paint. The margins of her notebooks were always covered with sketches – showing her fascination with eyes since the very beginning. Those artistic timid attempts convinced the teachers of her talent. The girl was signed up for art classes and painting remained a combination of philosophy and a kind of therapy. Watkins Art Institute and then Traphagen School of Design polished her talent and provided her with the necessary artistic background. As the post-war reality which was still far from the vision of the sexual revolution of the Sixties, the role of women was still limited to the kitchen and the children’s crib. And Margaret soon decided to fulfil the obligation imposed by society, but the first marriage ended painfully for her. Unfortunately, it was just a prelude to the next, equally unfortunate chapter.
At the beginning, Walter and Margaret seemed to be the perfect couple. Even their past was alike – when they met, they were both single parents after the dissolution of their first marriages. “After all, he was simply charming,” Margaret recalled later, adding that she was convinced that her admirer is also a painter.
But we must remember that this “flippancy” of Keane brought them media attention. It all started in a local pub in San Francisco, where the Keanes displayed their works. Soon Walter got into an argument with the owner, which ended up as an article in the San Francisco Chronicle with photos of paintings. It undoubtedly stepped on the gas pedal of their careers: the next step was to own a gallery, opened in 1958. However, matching the predispositions of a real estate agent, Keane decided to sell art in a way he would sell apartments – on a massive scale. Soon, the world has gone mad about mugs, postcards and posters, which gazed at the owner with the big, beautiful, sad eyes. In the group of the people impressed with this phenomenon was even Andy Warhol. Meanwhile, Walter set out to conquer the social elite. To build his position in the art world he hired Tom Wolfe, who praised Keanes’ business under a pseudonym. Moreover, he came up with a political ideology behind “his” works: he explained the energy surrounding the paintings with the trauma caused by his post-war youth, spent in Europe. We have to remember that the interest in the rights of children was yet to rise: the UN Declaration of Rights of the Child was introduced only in 1959, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child was still to come with the end of the Eighties – nevertheless, Walter explained their movement with struggling orphans on the streets of Berlin, massacred by the war – and it became the philosophy behind the “big eyes”.
Throughout this period, Margaret remained in the background. Deprived of her style, which in fact wasn’t associated with children orphaned during the war but her own experiences, she was forced to develop something new. So there came portraits signed with her name: swan-necked, fragile women and almond-shaped eyes have become her trademark. There was some buzz about her briefly: “Life” described her as “withdrawn, brought to life when the conversation switches to the occult”. It was Walter who enjoyed the fame and adoration. “Nobody painted eyes like El Greco, and no one can paint the eyes as Keane,” he boasted to the same magazine. The woman couldn’t fight the status of her husband: when Walter travelled and moved in circles of celebrities, the media depicted her as an ideal wife, painting on the breaks between raising the children and taking care of the household. She worked in a locked room, protecting valuable secret and creating paintings attributed to then her partner.
When Mr Keane dealt with “developing the company”, his wife decided to start her life all over again. In 1965, she applied for separation and moved to Honolulu. Afterwards, she explained that she couldn’t stand living with someone constantly criticising her, being eternally jealous and spending most of his time on parties. Why didn’t she withdraw before?
One of the reasons was the fear of coping with daily life on her own. “I didn’t think I could support myself and my daughter, and he brainwashed me it was my fault he couldn’t paint,” she said in the aforementioned interview in 2012.
When she began life again in Hawaii, she found it hard to paint. However, the real breakthrough came in 1970, when she confessed that Walter wasn’t the father of “big-eyed waifs”. News electrified the world of art, and Margaret became braver. “He wanted to learn how to paint, and when he was at home – which was not often – I tried to teach him,” she explained, challenging him: “Give us paints, brushes and canvases and put on Union Square at noon, and we’ll see who can paint the eyes”. Walter never responded to the challenge, defending himself with excuses instead and fleeing abroad until the court forced him to come back. His melting savings forced him to act: in 1982, he decided to fight with his wife for about one and a half million dollars, with a court case to prove the authorship. Margaret defended herself cleverly, ending the quarrel with a famous, 53-minute show of painting in the court, which proved her ability of painting. When Keane was asked to do the same thing, he excused himself with a sore shoulder, summing up: “Margaret would copy everything, even Rembrandt”. For the rest of his life, he remained quite bitter, backbiting his ex-wife with almost paranoid mannerism at every single possibility. On the other hand, for ex-Mrs. Keane the well-deserved golden age came – Margaret still paints her big-eyed kids, listing Modigliani, Gauguin and Van Gogh as her inspirations. Last year, we could see Tim Burton’s devotion to the potential of the huge scam story.
“It was a very emotional experience for both me and my daughter,” Margaret confessed to “Daily Mail” after seeing the film for the first time. “It seems to me that Walter was presented exactly as he was – but I also think in reality Walter was probably even more crazy,” she added.
To prepare the article, I used the book “Citizen Keane” by A. Parfrey and C. Nelson and articles from “Daily Mail” and “Awake”.