One critic called them “the very definition of tasteless hack work,” but they were perhaps the best-selling art in the Western world in the early ’60s. They’re the saucer-eyed Keane kids, and, love them or leave them, there is no questioning their status in American pop culture. But the story behind the works is far more interesting than that. It turns out that Margaret Keane, the creator of the wide-eyed, bummed out waifs with equally sad pets, wasn’t actually given credit for her works until 1986. From the height of their popularity in the 60s until then it was her husband, Walter Keane – a shrewd businessman with no artistic talent – who claimed credit for their creation. What a punk!
Margaret and Walter divorced in 1965, and the battle began. In 1970 a newspaper reporter arranged a paint-off between the exes to “officially” establish authorship of the paintings (sounds like something out of a movie, right?!). Well, Walter proved his poser status when he didn’t even show up to compete! But that wasn’t enough for the law, so in 1986, Margaret took her ex-husband to court to prove, once and for all, that she was sole creator behind the paintings. Margaret acknowledged that she had gone along with Walter’s claims during their marriage, but only because he threatened to kill her and her daughter by a prior marriage if she revealed the truth! At the behest of her attorney, Margaret sat before the jurors and in 53 minutes painted a small boy’s face with those unmistakable outsize orbs. When Walter was challenged to do the same he declined due to a “sore shoulder,” and the rest is history.
Well almost history … Now the story of the Keanes’ marriage and their battle to prove “authorship” of the paintings is to become a movie called “Big Eyes.” It will be co-produced by Tim Burton, who collects Margaret’s work and once commissioned her to paint his then fiancée, the model Lisa-Marie, and will star Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds. Should be interesting.