Margaret Keane, the artist known for her “big eyes” paintings, has died at the age of 94.
Keane was embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to her work after her husband claimed credit, a story told by Tim Burton in the 2014 film Big Eyes. Her daughter Jane Swigert confirmed her death at home in Napa, California, as the result of heart failure.
Born Peggy Doris Hawkins, she studied design in New York City before finding work painting baby cribs in the 1950s. She soon moved on to her own art before meeting Walter Keane in 1955. He discovered her trademark paintings, saucer-eyed children looking sad, and started selling them to comedy clubs, taking credit.
After convincing her that it was a more realistic solution, she agreed to the deception, telling the Guardian in 2014 that it was “tearing” her apart. By the 1960s, the paintings were ubiquitous, with stars including Dean Martin and Joan Crawford buying the originals. Andy Warhol said at the time: “I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”
But art critics were unimpressed and in 1964, at the World’s Fair, a large-scale painting called Tomorrow Forever was called “tasteless hack work”in the New York Times before promptly being taken down. “When people said it was just sentimental stuff it really hurt my feelings,” she said. “Some people couldn’t stand to even look at them. I don’t know why – just a violent reaction.”
The couple divorced soon after and in 1970, she announced that she was the real artist. In 1986 she sued both Walter Keane and USA Today for claiming he was the one behind the paintings. She won the case after a “paint-off” in court but never received her $4m worth of damages as Walter Keane was bankrupt.
Her story was later turned into the 2014 film Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams, which led to a brief resurgence of popularity for her work. She called watching the film a “traumatic” experience.
The film’s co-writer Larry Karaszewski paid tribute to her on Facebook. “Grateful we all got to spend so much time getting to know her beautiful spirit,” he wrote. “It took a decade to bring Big Eyes to the screen. But her tale of surviving abuse was important. She wanted the world to know the truth about her life and art.”
In 2018, then Los Angeles Art Show awarded her a lifetime achievement award during a retrospective of her work. She called it “a real blessing”.
Her death was reported on her official Facebook page today. “We’re sad to announce that Margaret Keane, ‘The Mother of Big Eyes, our Queen, a Modern Master and Legend’ peacefully passed away Sunday morning at her home in Napa, CA, she was 94.”