Margaret Keane: Recent Death and Future Legacy 

American artist, Margaret Keane, died on 26th June 2022 at the age of 94, after an almost 60-year career. Her notable collection of ‘Big Eyed Waifs’ paintings has drawn fascination from many and inspired aspects of modern media such as The Powerpuff Girls. But she wasn’t always credited for her work, and spent much of her career under the shadow of her husband, Walter Keane.  

From a young age, Keane had a fascination with eyes. After permanent eardrum damage during a mastoid operation, she learned to watch the eyes of people she was talking to in order to engage in the conversation. This way of communication translated into her art, and whilst she was studying at the Watkins Institute in Nashville at age 10, she gave one of her first oil paintings to her grandmother. Keane expressed that “Children do have big eyes. When I’m doing a portrait, the eyes are the most expressive part of the face. And they just got bigger and bigger and bigger.” 

Her artwork would eventually catch the eye of her future husband, Walter Keane. And in 1955 he pushed her to popularise her art. He began selling her pieces at a comedy club in San Fransisco and exhibiting them across the country. Having signed her work with their shared last name, Margaret’s work was claimed by Walter to be his own during these exploits and popularity began to grow. In the 1960s, Walter became one of the most popular artists at the time, with an interview on The Tonight Show solidifying the ruse for all of America. Margaret herself even supported the claim that they were Walter’s works, and later admitted that the act of doing so was ‘torturous’ but justified to herself that at least her work was being shown.  

In 1965, Margaret and Walter divorced and in 1970 Margaret announced on a radio show that she was the real painter of ‘Big Eyed Waifs’. Their dispute would not be settled until 1968 when Margaret sued Walter and the American newspaper USA Today for an article claiming that Walter was the real artist. The judge famously ordered a ‘paint-off’ between Margaret and Walter. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder as the reason why he could not paint. Margaret, however, finished her painting within an hour and was declared the de-facto winner of the trial and the true artist of a decade’s worth of paintings. 

This trial was a triumph, however, the trauma of that period of her life would be revisited when Tim Burton, a fan of her paintings, directed a biopic of her life. Whilst the film caused a resurgence of interest in her work, Keane herself described the film as ‘traumatic’ to watch, citing Christopher Waltz’ acting as being almost identical to how her husband was in the past. However, after a few days, it did “start to dawn on [her] how fantastic the movie is”, possibly hinting that the film was an added cathartic experience for her to reflect upon. 

Keane continued to paint until the end of her life, and her work has and will continue to inspire future artists for years to come.  

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Badriya Abdullah

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August 2022
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