In 1986 a Honolulu jury watched Margaret Keane paint Exhibit 224, a signature “Big Eyes” painting, in just 53 minutes. Her ex-husband Walter Keane, who had claimed to be the true painter of this unique style for decades, declined to prove himself on the canvas because, conveniently, he had a shoulder injury. “I never saw a cent of it,” the now 87-year-old Margaret Keane says of the $4 million the jury awarded her after a 3 1/2 week trial. “But I won.”
Shortly after Walter and Margaret married, Walter was already playing an art con. They met when he was transitioning from a real estate agent to a gallery owner, and Margaret thought he was an artist as well. It wasn’t until two years later that she discovered a stash of the landscapes he had been claiming were his with someone else’s name on them. Soon after that, when someone asked her if she painted “too,” Margaret realized her husband was selling her work as his own. Margaret testified in court that Walter threatened to kill her and her daughter (from another marriage) if she ever told the truth.
Despite his threats, Margaret left Walter in 1965, after 10 years of marriage. In 1975, Margaret published an account of her story in Awake! magazine.
Controversies surrounding my private life and the authorship of my paintings resulted in international wire stories, lawsuits, front-page pictures and even headlines. For many years I had allowed my second husband to take credit for my paintings. But one day, unable to continue the deception any longer, I left him and my home in California and moved to Hawaii. After a period of depression and very little painting, I began trying to rebuild my life and later married again. One turning point came in 1970 when a newspaper reporter arranged a televised paint-out between me and my former husband, to be held in San Francisco’s Union Square to establish the authorship of the paintings. I was the only one to show up and accept the challenge.
Even after the lengthy court battle where he was unable to prove himself, Walter maintained that he was the true painter of the doe-eyed children until his death in 2000. “In some ways it was my most important painting,” Margaret has said about Exhibit 224. “It brings back good memories. But I felt sorry for him.”
Margaret still paints, and her work has taken on a more cheerful vibe since she left Walter, got remarried, and joined the Jehovah’s Witness church. Her paintings can earn from $12,000 to $185,000, with prints selling from $850 to $5,000. She didn’t get her millions, but she kept her career.
Margaret wants the Big Eyes film to send a message of courage and honestly to the audience. “Stand up for your rights and be brave, and don’t be intimidated,” Margaret said at the film’s premiere. “Read your Bible. That’s really given me strength, and it will give you strength. Pray, and use God’s name, Jehovah. And never tell a lie, ever.”
Walter’s daughter Susan, however, isn’t too happy with Margaret’s version of events, find out her version of the truth here.
Big Eyes opens Dec. 25
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Cinematographer: Bruno Delbonnel