False Muses & Fraud
Walter Keane was born on October 7th, 1915. He was one of ten children. Keane grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and from an early age he showed a talent for sales. He was in the words of his second wife, Margaret, “just oozing with charm.” It was charm beyond anything else, which Keane honed and perfected throughout his life. Whether it was selling shoes in Lincoln, real estate in Berkeley, or even puppets and records in New York, Keane excelled. Keane was a born salesman in an age where the travelling salesman was a staple of the American landscape, but instead of Kitchen-Aids or Tupperware, Keane made his name as an artist.
Keane’s story is fantastic, and fantastic is the appropriate adjective, as his tale is almost entirely fictitious. According to Keane, he discovered not only his talent but his calling during a trip to Germany shortly after the end of WWII. It was 1946, and Keane had travelled to Berlin to study painting, but instead he found a city filled with lost children: “[they were] these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses.”1 These hopeless children were the inspiration for the “Big Eyes” series, which Keane would work on for the rest of his life.
Walter met his second wife, Margaret, at an outdoor fair, where she was making charcoal sketches. Margaret, according to Walter, was almost immediately smitten with him, and shortly after their first encounter, the couple married in 1955. From the beginning, Margaret was madly in love with Walter, she was full of perfect quotable superlatives of which Walter details with peculiar precision in his memoirs:
“I know who you are, and I love your paintings. 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, the magnificent colors and textures and the sadness you portray in the faces of the children make me want to touch them.”2
Indeed, as if the above were not high enough praise, Margaret would go on to anoint Walter with the title of the “greatest lover in the world” following their first night together. It is clear that Walter was concerned with protecting his place in the canons of both High Romance and 20th Century Art History.
He began by displaying his Big Eye children at a local bar in San Francisco called The Hungry i. The response, again, was almost immediate and sensational. Walter and Margaret would put up posters and “they’d be torn down hours after we’d put them up. People kept pouring in asking how much they cost.”3 This origin story is the one, which Walter fed to Life Magazine in 1965, and whilst it is true that he began selling posters and paintings of the Big Eye children at The Hungry i, it is clear that Margaret was not a part of this early sales drive, nor was she particularly aware of one key detail.
It was somewhere in the late 1950s, after the Big Eye paintings had begun to gain some notoriety, when Margaret discovered Walter’s ruse. One night, Walter brought Margaret to The Hungry i, sat her at a corner table, and then left to go about his usual business of selling his Big Eye paintings. During the course of the evening one of Walter’s clients came over to Margaret’s table and asked “Do you paint too?”4 It was then that Margaret realized Walter had been passing her work off as his own.
When the couple returned home that night, Margaret confronted Walter and demanded that he come clean about her work. But by then, at least according to Walter, it was too late. Walter warned of confused clients, lawsuits, and a loss of this wonderful stream of income. If the fraud were ever to be revealed, their lives would be ruined and Margaret would be responsible. As a compromise, Walter asked Margaret to teach him to paint the Big Eye children, and from his perspective it is difficult to see how this could not be a simple, and viable solution. Margaret agreed, and began earnestly trying to teach her charming husband to paint in her style. The lessons went well at first until it was finally, and absolutely revealed that Walter had no artistic talent. He could not paint. His response to this revelation was to blame his wife, and dismiss her as a horrible teacher, lacking in skill and patience. Yet, still her paintings sold, and before long the canvasses were beginning to reach a wider audience. Margaret was trapped.
Margaret and Walter in the studio
Walter began giving interviews to anyone who would listen, he licensed and released postcards, and he sold paintings to celebrities and film stars. Joan Crawford and Kim Novak bought some of Walter’s work; and Andy Warhol remarked “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.”5 This newfound fame, and its trappings of fortune, allowed the Keanes to move up in the world. But for Margaret it just meant a different ivory tower. Her studio was moved to a locked room, in a gated community, in a house with servants, and a pool.
Walter and Margaret depicted painting starlet Natalie Wood by the pool
Walter would call the house regularly to ensure his golden-egg-laying goose was still there. Margaret was kept cut-off from the outside world lest she reveal her secret, and in an inverse to her isolation, Walter became all the more visible. He partied with the mafia, carried on a string of affairs, and would return home only to check on Margaret’s work and push her to do more.
Tomorrow Forever, 1963
In 1964, Walter showed his masterwork at the World’s Fair. It was called Tomorrow Forever, and in keeping with Margaret’s signature style it depicts a hundred or so melancholy children. The painting was universally panned with one critic calling it “this tasteless hack work contains about 100 children and hence it is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.”6 Soon after, the Keane’s divorced, and Margaret swore to keep Walter’s secret and, strangely, to continue painting for him. The arrangement held until 1970, when Margaret finally became sick of all the lies and revealed her story to a journalist.
The response from Walter was immediate. He began a smear campaign almost immediately. Margaret was, according to him, an alcoholic, a liar, a pervert who was inclined to orgies with parking attendants, and in league with the Jehovah’s Witnesses to besmirch his good name. Walter managed to convince USA Today to run his side of the story in conjunction with the civil suit he brought against Margaret. Margaret sued him in kind, and in a bizarre ultimate showdown, the likes of which would not be beyond the bounds of a reality-tv producer’s imagination, the pair engaged in a painting duel in a Hawaiian Federal Court. Margaret won. She painted her work in 53 minutes, whilst Walter failed to even make a meaningful effort – he acquired a mysterious shoulder injury on the day whose severity was so pronounced he could barely lift a brush. Sadly, Margaret’s was a Pyrrhic victory, as by the time the judge ruled in her favour, Walter had drank away all of his money, and the Art World had lost interest in her work.
Signed in her own hand, Margaret Keane’s Little Blondie, 1986
Margaret continues to paint her Big Eye children and her work has regained some interest, especially after Tim Burton released a biopic of her life in 2014. Walter died alone in 2000.
^ 1. Parfrey, Adam, and Cletus Nelson. Citizen Keane: The Big Lies behind the Big Eyes. Feral House, 2014. pg 17
^ 2. Ibid, pg 32
^ 3. Howard, Jane. “The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes.” Life Magazine 27 Aug. 1965: 39-48. Web. Accessed 5/30/16
^ 4. Ronson, Jon. “The Big-eyed Children: The Extraordinary Story of an Epic Art Fraud.” The Guardian. Web. Accessed 5/30/16
^ 5. Life Magazine, 42
^ 6. The Guardian
Featured Image Source: The New York Post