Vintage Heller: The Keane Kwestion

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Editor’s Note: Over the years, Steven Heller has written thousands of installments of his blog, The Daily Heller. With Vintage Heller, we’re exploring entries from the archives. This post first appeared in January 2015.

By now many of you have already heard about or maybe even have seen Tim Burton’s latest film, Big Eyes, based on the lives of the American “painting family” of Margaret and Walter Keane. “Big eyes” refers to the big eyes that were hallmarks of their portraits during the 1960s. Them there eyes made the work irresistible.

Walter, who took the credit for the work (allowing that Margaret merely contributed), came under constant fire from art world establishment elite. In Big Eyes, Walter (Christoph Waltz) confronts John Canaday, the New York Times’ art critic, who savagely attacked the painting “Tomorrow Forever,” which Walter believed was his masterpiece.


In Canaday’s words: “‘Tomorrow Forever,’ as the painting is called, contains about 100 children and hence is about 100 times as bad as the average Keane.”

The wonderful world of the walter Keanes

Over 20 years ago, I wrote a few words about Mr. Keane’s big-eyed oeuvre. At the time, I didn’t know what has become common knowledge—that Margaret did all the paintings, not just her own, but Walter’s too.

In 1961 Margaret divorced Walter and took the eyes with her. In 1970, she announced publicly that she had created all the paintings. Walter countered that she said so only because she believed that he was dead. She sued him for slander. So with Solomonic wisdom, the presiding judge ordered both Margaret and Walter to each create a big-eyed child painting before the spectators in the courtroom. Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder; Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes.

My short critique was a sarcastic jab at what many sixties artists called un-modern, sentimental pap. A few months later I received a note from Margaret (lost, but I’m still looking) explaining that Walter was a fraud. She graciously did not castigate me for the snarky statements nor did she make any defense of her own work. She simply explained that in 1970 the court had verified that it was her talent, not his, that made the big-eye franchise. That her story has been made into a film by Tim Burton is a testament to the never-ending incredulity of popular culture.

Likewise, that this original sales prospectus for Keane Lithographs reveals that the famously hip Night Owl Cafe in Greenwich Village earnestly distributed the work suggests my high-brow snobbery was pretty short-sighted. Also, that I have kept this brochure since the mid-sixties must say something about my true feelings about the work.

Keane Lithographs
Margaret Keane
Double Draw
The Keanes
The three Harlequins
Tomorrow Forever
Margaret Keane trying to finish the Jerry Lewis family portrait while Jerry clowns