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Painter Margaret Keane, the creator of big-eyed figures, has died aged 94

Margaret Keane, the painter who created the famous big-eyed figures, has passed away. Aged 94, she died as a result of heart failure at her home in the Napa Valley. 

Keane’s story is a well-known one. She experienced a dramatic rise and career, which featured a lengthy battle with her husband Walter Keane, who claimed he was the creator of her paintings, which resulted in a court-mandated “paint off” to discover who actually created them. This part of her life was adapted into the 2014 film Big Eyes by Tim Burton

Born Margaret Doris Hawkins in Nashville, Tennessee in 1927, a childhood mastoid operation caused eardrum damage that resulted in lasting hearing issues. After this life-changing moment, Keane became obsessed with eyes, as she used them to assist her in conversations because of her poor hearing. At the age of ten, she started drawing characters with big eyes, which would gradually develop into the figures that made her famous. 

She married Walter Keane in 1955. A former realtor, he aggressively pushed her paintings in the hope of popularising them, whilst claiming to be the artist. Starting with local media, he was eventually interviewed on The Tonight Show, and host Jack Parr labelled the painting as the best painting he’d ever seen. 

Margaret Keane’s work was not critically acclaimed by the art world, however. In 1964, when the World’s Fair announced that its theme was based on her paintings, the New York Times art critic John Canaday wrote a scathing account of her work, whilst aiming it at Walter, who was still claiming credit. 

He said: “Mr. Keane is the painter who enjoys international celebration for grinding out formula pictures of wide-eyed children of such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics with the very definition of tasteless hack work”.

However, her painting continued to gain popularity, and with galleries opened across America, and prints and postcards sold in department stores by the million, they became an iconic part of the country’s culture. 

In 1992, Keane opened the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco and continued to paint into her 90s. Later in life, she became a Jehovah’s Witness, whilst living in the Napa Valley with her family. 

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