Margaret has such a great story full of betrayal and redemption. She was known for her paintings women, children and animals of subjects with big eyes. Margaret favored oil but she also used mixed mediums. She was born Peggy Doris Hawkins September 15, 1927.Not much is known about Margaret’s earlier years.
I was unable to find out any information regarding her parents. From what I can find out they must have been supportive. Margaret was born in Nashville Tennessee, she was the oldest of two siblings. When Margaret was 2 years old she had a mastoid operation which permanently damaged her eardrum.
It left her unable to hear well and it is how she started watching the eyes of the people talking to her to understand what them. Margaret has said that she had always sketched big eyes even as a child. She was never really sure why except that eyes had always interested her, she believed that ” The eyes show the inner person more accurately.”
Margaret seemed to have had a “normal ” childhood. She went to public school with her siblings and starting drawing as a young child. At the age of 10 she took some classes at Watkins Institute in Nashville and she was well known in her church community for her paintings of angels with big eyes and floppy wings. At the age of 18 she began attending the Traphagen School of Design in New York City for a year.
There are some vague details about her life from childhood until the 1950’s but one detail is that Margaret married a man by the name of Frank Richard Olbridge who was abusive to her. On April 15th 1950 Margaret gave birth to her daughter Jane and she was the best thing that came out from the marriage.
Jane would always stand by her mothers side and continued to do so until her mothers death. One day, Margaret and Jane packed up and after many failed attempts were finally able to leave their abuser and went to San Francisco.
In San Fransisco Margaret got a job and began painting clothing and baby cribs and then she began her career painting portraits. In her early career she started experimenting in Kitsch and continued working in both oil and acrylic based paints.
Margaret has said that when her daughter was born she couldn’t afford to have her photographed so Margaret being the creative woman that she was, began to try to capture her daughter in her paintings. She made the eyes bigger to try to capture the moments and emotions of her daughter.
Now here is where the real drama begins, Margaret was now a single mom during an era when being a single mom was definitely frowned upon and at risk of loosing custody of her daughter Jane. She met the man who’s name I wish we didn’t have to mention, Walter Keane sometime in the mid 1950’s. He swept in like a knight in shining armor during a time when our poor Margaret was fragile as most narcissists do.
Now even though we don’t want to talk about him it should be noted that dear old Walter had been married to a woman named Barbara and together they had a daughter Susan. Barbera and Walter were both real estate brokers and began traveling to Europe living in Heidelberg then later in Paris.
When they returned to their home in Berkeley they started an educational toy business called Susie Keane’s Puppeteens that would help teach children to speak French by using handmade puppets. They sold their puppets in high end stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue.
Barbara became more wise and independent. She was now the head of her own department in dress design and Walter closed both his real estate firm and toy company in order to work full time at his painting. Walter and Barbara later got divorced shortly before meeting Margaret.
Walter was recorded telling the story of when he first saw Margaret at a fairgrounds in 1953 as follows: ” he was at the height of his popularity when he saw her sitting alone at a well known North Beach Bistro making sketches and he was attracted by her large eyes.”Margaret had said she thought Walter was ” charming, suave and gregarious” Walter and Margaret went to Honolulu to get married in 1955.
Walter seemed to waist no time at all and he began to sell Magaret’s paintings immediately, of course he did not tell her that he was claiming them as his own. Walter was still trying to paint street scenes and Margaret had been painting portraits with her big eyes for years already. The comedy club in San Francisco was the principal venue for Walters sales at this time. One night while at this club Margaret was there with her husband Walter was when she overheard him claiming he himself painted her works.
Sadly when she finally uncovered his deception Margaret stayed silent explaining later that she was frightened of Walter because he had threatened to have her “Done” if she said anything. Margaret did put up a fight against Walter although she did so privately. She has said that for about a year the two of them fought about his deception and Margaret has stated that he wore her down over time and convinced her that the paintings would be easier to sell because he was a ” man. ” Walter told her ” People don’t buy lady art.” For Margaret it was a nightmare.
Her paintings starting to grow in popularity and Walter continued to take credit for her paintings. Margaret got inspiration for her paintings from artists such as Modigliani and she attributed him as an influence on the way she painted women from 1959 on. She was influenced by other artists in terms of dimension, color and composition such as Vincent Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, and Pablo Picasso.
Poor Margaret went as far as to even publicly acknowledge Walter as the artist and she later stated that it was tortuous for her and she had rationalized the whole situation thinking at least her works were being shown. Just two years after they were married Walter began to exhibit the ” big eyes ” paintings as his own.
Margaret’s paintings were shown on the wall of the Bank of America in Sausalito, Washington Square Park outdoor art show in New York City, the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and a small East side gallery all in the same month. During this same month Walter took 9 paintings to Mardi Gras where he claims to have sold them all.
In the 1960’s Margaret’s paintings became one of the most popular and commercially successful of the time. Andy Warhol said that he thought what Keane had done is just terrific. John Canaday described Keane as a painter celebrated ” for grinding out formula pictures of wide eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics definition of tasteless hack work.”
That had to sting Margaret a little bit to read some of the critics reviews.There is a lost interview with Walter Keane from 1964 officeofimagearcheaology,com. I recommend taking look at this interview. Walter really was something else with all his lies about how he began to paint the big eyed children. He disgusted me in this interview.
Margaret had enough by 1970 she remarried a good man named Dan McGuire in Hawaii. Margaret credits Dan with helping her to become less timid and afraid after her divorce. With this new found strength she finally went to tell the world that she was the real creator of the paintings. She announced it on a radio broadcast and people were shocked. There was only one way to prove who the actual artist was and it was a ” paint off ” between Margaret and Walter. Of course dear old Walter did what most cowards do and simply did not show up.
In 1986 Margaret began to reclaim her life and her works and she sued both Walter and the USA Today in federal court for an article claiming that Walter was the real artist. At this trial the judge ordered both Walter and Margaret to each create a big eyed painting in the court room for everyone to see. As always Walter found an excuse not to paint claiming he had a sore shoulder, but our Margaret she rose to the occasion and painted hers in 53 minutes.
The trial lasted three weeks, and finally the jury awarded Margaret 4 million dollars in damages. Margaret said ” I really feel that justice has triumphed, it’s been worth it , even if I don’t see any of the 4 million dollars,” Margaret never did see a penny from the 4 million dollars the court ordered Walter to pay, but at least she got her dignity back.
You can see that when Margaret was with Walter her paintings depicted sad looking children in dark settings. After she left Walter and moved to Hawaii her work took on a brighter style. Margaret has said that ” The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are the window to the soul.”
Now many galleries advertise Margaret’s works as having tears of joy or tears of happiness. Margaret herself describes her subjects as ” These are the paintings of children in paradise. They are what I think the world is going to look like when God’s will is done.”
In 1991 Margaret and her husband Dan moved to California with her daughter Jane and her son in law Don Swigert.Margaret continued to gain recognition and was commissioned to paint Hollywood actors such as Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, Jerry Lewis. Tim Burton was a collector of Margarets works and in 2014 he directed the biographical film Big Eyes about the life of Margaret Keane.
He also commissioned her to paint a portrait of his then girlfriend Lisa Marie. Margaret’s big eyes paintings even influenced toy designs with dolls such as Little Miss no name and Susie sad eyes dolls. Even the cartoon that we all know and watched The Power Puff Girls. Craig McCracken the creator of the power Puff Girls named the teacher Ms. Keane after Margaret.
2017 Margaret began hospice care at the age of 90. The care she received from hospice allowed her to recover and feel inspired again. She was able to relax and paint more. In 2018 Margaret received a lifetime achievement award at the LA. Art Show. Sadly Margaret died from heart failure at her home in June of 2022. Rest in Peace Margaret.
Margaret was a warrior, even though she was unlucky in her life to find herself involved with abusive men and one who for sure was a narcissist and would plagiarize her works. She picked herself back up and she reclaimed her life back and her works. I admire her strength and her ability to keep going when all seemed lost in her life.
Thank you for reading my post. Please feel free to like, comment and subscribe… Until next time stay inspired and blessed.