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The Eyes Have It.


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I’m obsessed with Margaret Keane. When most people hear the name “Keane” they think of the somewhat cheesy big-eyed orphan paintings. What most people don’t know is that Margaret Keane’s early work in the 1960s is very different. She painted some of the most deliciously languid mod portraits around. True, the big dreamy eyes were still there….but these paintings are decidedly more grown up. I have a few prints of hers and an amazing book with excellent photo plates. I thought it would be fun to take a look!

 photo Keane_Mags.jpg

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See what I mean? Still a tad creepy, but in a beautifully dreamy way…I love these petulant girls sipping their coffee:

Ahhh, the old portrait within a portrait. Creepily awesome.

While we are on the topic of the “classic Keane” look, allow me to dazzle you with a little of the history behind the Legend of Keane. It’s a good story. Back in the 60s, Walter Keane was known as the Master of the Big Eyed Waifs. While Margaret did these more chic ladies, his images were largely of young children with hauntingly sad eyes. The Keanes opened up a gallery in 1959 in New York and it quickly became a success. Walter was the consummate business man and the story goes that he would often leave faux packing cases addressed to famous movie stars so people would walk in and say, “Oooh, Dean Martin is buying one? I better get one before the prices go up!” Crafty, eh?

Throughout the ’60s, the popularity of Keane paintings soared. Stars like Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Liberace and even Zsa Zsa Gabor all owned original Keane paintings. My favorite is this crazy portrait of Jerry Lewis and his family. And their pets. All with longing eyes. Totally insane:

In the ’70s LIFE magazine declared Keane’s paintings to be the most popular art in the western world. They even got a nod in the Woody Allen movie, “Sleeper” (Diane Keaton, presented with a big-eye painting, squeals with delight, “It’s Keane, it’s pure Keane!”).

In 1965, Margaret and Walter went through a bitter divorce—and it was revealed that Margaret was ACTUALLY THE ONE PAINTING ALL THE PAINTINGS! Walter simply took credit for them. It was never clear whether it was because they thought a male artist would have more credibility or if it was because he was a savvy, controlling business man. Either way, Walter was now attempting to stop her from painting “big eyed waifs” claiming he was the one who originated the style. They battled in court for years and finally the case made it to a federal court. The judge requested a “Paint Off” —asking that they each paint right then and there in the court room. Margaret triumphantly dashed off a quick portrait of a saucer-eyed child looking over a fence….while Walter, in a TOTAL Brady Bunch style maneuver, claimed he couldn’t paint because of a neck/shoulder injury. HAH! Needless to say, Margaret won. Bravo Margaret!

I have to confess I’m not much into any of her post Walter stuff. She said that while she was “living a lie” and letting him take credit, all her paintings had “sad eyes”. Her later work (in the 80s and 90s) has “bright eyes” as a result of her new-found happiness. (Is it wrong that I’m not a fan of her “new-found happiness??”) ANYWAY….let’s get back to her sad eyes, shall we?


image: the lovely whoreange

To date, Margaret Keane’s work has been discovered by a new generation and claims fans like John Waters, Tim Burton, Matthew Sweet and David LaChappelle. As I said in last week’s Link Hootenanny, Tim Burton is  directing the biopic on her life starring Amy Adams and Ryan Reynolds. I’m looking forward to that one!
The popularity of Margaret’s big-eyed babes inspired a slew of copycats…but I think we’ll save that for a follow up post, yes? So whatcha think friends….are these paintings terrific or terrifying? As Margaret herself has said, “You either love them or hate them….there really is no in-between.”

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Posted in Vintage Graphics, Vintage Pop Culture.

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6 Responses

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  1. Karen says

    This is some juicy history! I had no idea.

  2. Eartha Kitsch says

    I love that paint-off thing!! And that totally insanely awesome but creepy family portrait. I really appreciate the pieces but don’t own any. I think they’re best in bunches.

    • Alix says

      Isn’t it crazy??? I can’t even imagine….the movie might actually be pretty juicy!!

  3. Dottie says

    I gotta say, I’m totally fascinated by the story behind the couple–that is going to be one good movie to say the least!

    I am totally familiar with that Jerry Lewis picture–oh the jester!!! Dying!

  4. Lishyloo says

    I think I read someplace (I think the enclyopedia of bad taste… Great book) that it was legend with the pairs of boy/girl waifs that I had to buy and hang the set or you’d have bad luck

  5. mike says

    Nice tribute to a very under-rated artist. For me her “MDH Keane” girls / young women were the very essence of the early 1960’s. They have become, since my own adolescence in that era, one with my psyche. So the movie was disappointing; “MDH” was who she really was and aside from seeing “Self Portrait Silver” in progress, this part of her work appeared only incidentally among the gaggle of saucer-eyed urchins. Tho i did get to see a couple of unfamiliar ones; thank goodness for pause and zoom functions.
    It’s good to find someone else who takes her seriously; i feel as you do about her later paintings as well as the “walter” urchins. (As a little kid in the 50’s my mom was one of those who’d say: ” finish your vegetables; there are children starving in Europe” – maybe that’s why. )
    I could go on and on …



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