THE PROLIFIC PAINTER OF ‘BIG EYES’ FAME DIED IN JUNE AT 94
By Ariana Hartsock
Without a doubt, Margaret Keane holds an extremely unique and enigmatic place among artists of the 20th century. While her ubiquitous images of big-eyed children are etched into our popular consciousness and she holds an undeniable place among the most beloved and commercially successful artists of our time, it can certainly be said that her road was not an easy one. Keane’s paintings have for decades faced harsh criticism, drawing the ire of contemporary art critics who derided her work as sentimental and anti-modern. And, of course, her personal life was famously troubled. But, remarkably, this talented woman was able to rise above adversity, ultimately enjoying an illustrious career and producing a body of work that has enchanted audiences for generations. Indeed, Keane’s charming doe-eyed figures have become a representation of her own emotional struggles both as a woman and as an artist, imbuing her works with an endearing appeal that feels both personal and evocative to audiences.
Keane’s rise to fame as an artist, along with her incredible story of bravery, became widely known to the world upon the release of the 2014 Tim Burton film Big Eyes. Her harrowing tale began when she married her second husband, Walter Keane, in 1955 and he became the representative of her work. A talented salesman, Walter marketed her paintings in San Francisco galleries and amplified the demand for her canvases both locally and nationally. Her characteristic children, waifs, animals and other eccentric subjects quickly became a sensation. But unbeknownst to Margaret, her husband was taking credit for her works as his own, basking in accolades and becoming a celebrity himself – though, in reality, he couldn’t paint at all.
Once Margaret discovered this deception, she felt deeply conflicted – though it tortured her to remain silent and complicit in his con, she claimed Walter threatened her into silence. Fearing for her life and that of her daughter, Margaret was forced to continue to paint anonymously in the shadows, simply signing the name “Keane” and keeping Walter’s secret for years – until her dramatic escape allowed her the freedom and independence to create a new life and career of her own.
An inspirational figure of strength and determination, Margaret Keane has become an icon in pop culture, and the result has been an insatiable demand for her paintings at auction. Prices have continued to rise for her delightful works, and each season, Heritage Auctions has been honored to set new world records for her canvases at auction. Keane’s paintings capture the essence of an era in which the struggle between modern art and traditional subject matter was at the forefront of art criticism. And, for many, her work has provided a sense of nostalgia and a decidedly whimsical appeal.
Heritage is honored to offer several of Keane’s works in its American Art Signature® Auction on Nov. 4: Inflated Egos from 1963, Blonde Contessa from 1971 and Flower San from 1972.
ARIANA HARTSOCK is Director of Fine Art, Dallas at Heritage Auctions.