Art-World Asshole Made Millions Selling Paintings He Stole From His Wife
Maybe you've seen one of the images on a postcard, or a print on the wall of a sentimental older relative: a person, usually a young child, gazes at you with a cartoonishly melancholy expression. She might be holding a puppy or a kitten, and she definitely has enormous, tearful eyes.
Ostensibly, they were created by Walter Keane, a playboy painter who sold millions of prints in the 1960s. In actuality, Margaret Keane—the wife Walter abused and stole from for nearly a decade—was the artist behind them. On Sunday, the Guardian published an extensive interview with Margaret, who never saw any of the money her talents brought in. Here, she describes the aftermath of a confrontation with her husband over the paintings' authorship:
"Back home he tried to explain it away," she says. "He said: 'We need the money. People are more likely to buy a painting if they think they're talking to the artist. People don't want to think I can't paint and need to have my wife paint. People already think I painted the big eyes and if I suddenly say it was you, it'll be confusing and people will start suing us.' He was telling me all these horrible problems."
Walter offered Margaret a solution: "Teach me how to paint the big-eyed children." So she tried. "And when he couldn't do it, it was my fault. 'You're not teaching me right. I could do it if you had more patience.' I was really trying, but it was just impossible."
Keane describes 16-hour days spent painting in locked, shuttered rooms as her husband carried on affairs and partied with the likes of the Beach Boys. She was prohibited from having any friends, and when she got a pet Chihuahua, she says, her husband beat and kicked it out of jealousy.
Eventually, Margaret Keane spoke up, divorced Walter, and was awarded $4 million after beating him in a live painting competition in a federal courtroom. Walter claimed he had a sore arm and couldn't work; Margaret painted her "big eyes" portrait in under an hour. (Sadly, Walter had squandered his fortune by that point, and Margaret didn't receive the payout.)
Margaret Keane's story—the courtroom paint-off in particular—sounds made for the movies, and indeed, Big Eyes, Tim Burton's biopic, comes out December 25.