Local Artist Appreciation: Margaret Keane
For this month’s blog post about a local artist, we’ll be focusing on Margaret Keane. Though technically born in Nashville, Tennessee, Margaret would ultimately run off to San Francisco, California in the mid-1950’s. It was there she would meet Walter Keane — the man who would be the source of both problems and blessings. According to Margaret, she would widdle away years tirelessly creating striking paintings which featured big-eyed, somber-looking young girls that won the adoration of thousands — only for that adulation to all be received by her husband and her husband alone. This because he was allegedly taking all the credit for her intense efforts. This incredible conflict would be retold by newspapers, magazines, documentaries, and even a feature film directed by long-time fan Tim Burton. However, before we get into all that, let’s start with the beginning.
Margaret Keane was born Peggy Doris Hawkins on September 15, 1927. At the age of two, a mastoid operation left her eardrum permanently damaged. As a result of this, Margaret relied on the expression of a person’s eyes to understand what they were saying — and she would later rely on eyes to create the distinctiveness of her unique paintings. She was a ferocious drawer, taking classes at the accredited Watkins Institute in Nashville.
After turning eighteen, she journeyed to New York City where she studied at Traphagen School Of Design: a historically significant fashion school. Her early work in the 1950s involved clothing and painting cribs. However, she eventually was able to make a living out of painting portraits — regularly experimenting with “kitsch” and using both acrylic and oil-based paints. She was heavily inspired by Amedeo Modigliani, but also drew from other creative types such as Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Leonardo da Vinci, Gustav Klimt, Edgar Degas, Picasso, Sandro Botticelli and Paul Gauguin. As the Keane Eyes Gallery would describe, all of these artists “influenced Margaret’s use of color, dimension and composition”.
In 1948, at twenty-one years of age, she married Frank Richard Ulbrich. Little is known of this marriage other than the fact that it produced a daughter named Jane and ended in Margaret running to San Francisco with her child in the mid-1950s. As mentioned before, it was this location change that would result in Margaret meeting the highly impactful (though maybe not in a positive way) Walter Keane. What the two Keane’s can agree on is that they met at a bistro in North Beach. However, that is where stories begin to diverge. While Margaret admits to The Guardian that “[Walter] was just oozing with charm. He could charm anyone”, his depiction of events seems to exaggerate that idea.
According to Walter’s 1983 memoir The World of Keane, Margaret was completely smitten with the output of his side-hobby as a painter. “‘I love your paintings,’ she told me. ‘You are the greatest artist I have ever seen. You are also the most handsome. The children in your paintings are so sad. It hurts my eyes to see them. Your perspective and the sadness you portray in the faces of the children make me want to touch them.’” In response to this romantic adulation, Walter described himself as saying one thing and one thing only: “‘No…Never touch any of my paintings.’”
This love affair — regardless of how it began and what was initially said — resulted in Margaret and Walter divorcing their respective spouses and marrying each other in 1955 in Honolulu, Hawaii. It was after this that things started to go horribly wrong. According to varying sources, Walter’s manipulation of Margaret into being his creditless painter was slippery and passive. She was churning out artwork on her own time, with Walter selling them off to the public at open galleries. One day, Margaret decided to attend one of these galleries, which is where she found her husband presenting the paintings as his own creations rather than hers.
Naturally, she was devastated and threatened to leave him. However, Walter managed to sway her into staying — saying that the need to make an income was more important than proper credit. Perhaps it was that mentality of necessity towards wages or maybe it was her intense devotion to this charismatic man, but Margaret went along with Walter’s foolish plan. What the two could’ve never accounted for was how exceedingly popular “their” artwork would become.
According to The Guardian, “By the early 1960s, Keane prints and postcards were selling in the millions. You couldn’t walk into a Woolworths without seeing racks of them. Luminaries including Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak were buying the originals”. Not only were celebrities buying the artwork, but they were even visiting the Keanes and the massive pool that had come with their house. Some attendants included the Beach Boys, Maurice Chevalier, and Howard Keel. The great and famous Andy Warhol once even said “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”. However, when he said “Keane”, he wasn’t referring to Margaret — the true artist — but Walter and Walter alone.
Walter reveled in this new life of luxury and fame. The Guardian described this now highly-regarded artist as “a drinker and a lover – of women and of himself”. However, despite this personality of fun and gluttony, Walter was very capable of spinning a depiction that made him seem mysterious, dark, and introspective. In regard to the inspiration behind “his” distinctive paintings, he blamed it on the things he’d seen in Europe following WWII. In Walter’s biography he stated: “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.”
Margaret stuck by her husband through it all. While he partied upstairs, she worked in a tiny room — sometimes up to sixteen hours a day. She rarely saw her daughter and she never got to meet the famous celebrities who paraded through the home she had earned with her own uncredited hard work. A quote from fact-checking Hollywood vs. History commented how Margaret’s attitude towards the entire thing was “back then, women kind of went along with their husbands, didn’t rock the boat”. However, things finally reached a head when her once funny and charming husband became abusive.
While Walter engaged in numerous affairs (which Margaret was too numb to even be upset by), he also continuously isolated her — worrying that any sliver of socialization would pull his money-maker away from him.
For The Guardian, Margaret described how “[Walter] wouldn’t allow me to have any friends. If I tried to slip away from him, he’d follow me. We had a chihuahua and because I loved that little dog so much, he kicked it, and so finally I had to give the dog away. He was very jealous and domineering. And all along he said: ‘If you ever tell anyone I’m going to have you knocked off.’ I knew he knew a lot of mafia people. He really scared me. He tried to hit me once. But I said, ‘Where I come from men don’t hit women. If you ever do that again I’ll leave. But I let him do everything else, which was even worse probably.”
By 1970, Margaret had finally had enough. She went on radio broadcast and discredited her husband — resulting in a “paint-off” being arranged in San Francisco’s Union Square. Unsurprisingly, Walter did not make an appearance — leaving his wife and hoards of reporters waiting. However, the fight was still not over. Despite Walter’s obvious surrender at Union Square, the public did not consider that enough to prove Margaret as the real artist.
In 1986, she sued both her now ex-husband and USA Today in federal court over an article that claimed her to be a fraud and Walter the authentic creator. Famously, the judge of the case ordered that the two participate in another “paint-off”. Once again, Walter evaded making any actual output — this time using a sore shoulder as his reason. Meanwhile, Margaret finished an authentic “big-eyed painting” in the span of 53 minutes. The jury ultimately took Margaret’s side and awarded her $4 million in damages — which she lost due to a federal appeals court overturning the monetary compensation. Despite the tremendous loss of wages Margaret has endured, she has remained steadfast in her belief that authenticity and justice mattered more than money.
Since leaving Walter, moving to Hawaii, and remarrying, Margaret’s paintings of sad, desolate children have instead become depictions of happiness and vibrance. On the matter of why Margaret paints the way she paints, she stated “The eyes I draw on my children are an expression of my own deepest feelings. Eyes are windows of the soul”.