Margaret Keane, Painter Who Inspired Tim Burton's Big Eyes Movie, Dies at 94

Margaret Keane, the painter whose life story inspired the Tim Burton movie Big Eyes, has passed away at the age of 94. The news of Keane's passing was confirmed by her daughter, Jane Swigert, who said that the cause of death was heart failure. Keane passed away on Sunday, June 26th, in her Napa, California home. Keane's paintings developed commercial success and a legion of fans for portraying an array of subjects, traditionally children and animals, with oversized and sad eyes. Her work was also the subject of one of the most infamous cases of art fraud in the past century, after her second husband, Walter Keane, initially took credit for her work.

Born Peggy Doris Hawkins on September 15, 1927 in Nashville, Tennessee, Keane's fascination with eyes reportedly began after her eardrum was damaged and she was left unable to hear properly at the age of two, leading her to watch the eyes of people she was speaking to. Keane began painting at the age of 10 years old, and developed a career painting clothing and baby cribs, before moving on to portraits. 

In 1955, Keane got married to Walter Keane, who was a real estate salesman and amateur painter at the time. Almost immediately after their wedding, Walter began selling Margaret's paintings and claiming them as his own work, including in local newspaper and television interviews, and eventually on The Tonight Show. The paintings would go on to be some of the most successful commercial art of the time, with over $2 million being grossed from Keane prints just in the year 1964. While Walter's plagiarism was initially kept a secret from Margaret, she eventually discovered what was going on, but did not speak publicly about it for a decade, in part because of threats Walter made towards her and her daughter.

"The whole thing just snowballed, and it was too late to say it wasn't him who painted them," Ms. Keane later told The New York Times. "I'll always regret that I wasn't strong enough to stand up for my rights."

In 1965, Margaret won an uncontested court-ordered separation from Walter, but he was still allowed to promote and sell her paintings, with her receiving a portion of the profits. Eventually, in 1970, Margaret revealed that she was the true artist behind the Keane paintings, starting a firestorm of media attention. This all culminated in her filing a defamation lawsuit against Walter that landed in a Honolulu court in 1986, in which she challenged him to a public "paint-off." While the event proved that Margaret had been the artist behind the Keane paintings, Walter continued to claim that he was the artist until his death in 2000.

In more recent years, the Keane paintings have visually inspired an array of children's toys as well as cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls. In 2014, Keane's story was adapted into Big Eyes, a Tim Burton-directed movie that starred Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as Walter.

Our thoughts are with Keane's family, friends, and fans at this time.